La Jolla, Calif.
The Buick Invitational, which used to be a sleepy start to the season, had the look and zeal of a major with top-ranked players as common as the ubiquitous fog banks that hugged the Pacific coast all week. And like the cool haze that forced more than eight hours of delays, Tiger Woods proved again that he has a hold on Torrey Pines.
For the third time in seven years, Woods chipped and putted his way to victory Jan. 24 on the South course, outdueling Tom Lehman with a closing 68 for a 16-under 272 total.
“I hit it great at Mercedes and lost. I didn’t hit it good here and won. It comes down to making putts,” said Woods, who won his first PGA Tour stroke-play event since the 2003 WGC-American Express Championship.
As for the other three members of the “Big Four,” Ernie Els was the only one to make a move up the marquee. He began the final 18 holes five shots back, but for the third consecutive week fell short of victory and tied for sixth. It was his third top 6 in as many weeks.
Vijay Singh wasn’t nearly as dominant as he had been a week earlier at the Sony Open, struggling to take advantage of the easier North course and finishing outside of the top 10 (T-24) for the first time since he took over the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking in September 2004.
For Mickelson, the late-starting final wheel of the “Big Four,” it was a predictably pedestrian debut. Ten shots back to start Round 3, “Lefty” bogeyed four of his first eight holes and finished outside the top 50 for just the third time in 14 starts at the Buick Invitational.
That’s not to say Woods won in a walk. In fact, for all the attention paid to his swing makeover, it was Woods’ short game – and untimely collapses by Lehman and third-round co-leader Luke Donald – that ended his 15-month stroke-play victory drought.
After three days of incessant fog delays that threatened to force the first Monday finish in tournament history, the third round ended at 11:20 a.m. Sunday with Lehman – who led
from the outset thanks to an opening 62 on the benign North course – atop the leaderboard.
Less than an hour later, Donald stood two shots clear of the field following an 8-footer for birdie at No. 7.
Donald, with one round over par in his past 15 at Torrey Pines, seemed an unlikely lock to crash the “Big Four’s” early-season party until he misplayed his approach to the 14th green and took double bogey.
“It’s my bad shot. I get too fast with my legs and flip it left,” said Donald, who lost in a playoff to John Daly a year ago at the Buick. “It just came at the wrong time.”
For 70 holes, Lehman avoided his bad shot. His luck ran out, however, on the par-4 17th. Tied with Woods at 15 under, Lehman’s 8-iron approach to the 17th dropped short and into a greenside bunker. He failed to get up-and-down, and Woods sealed the victory with a birdie at the 18th.
“For 30 holes today I really held my own,” said Lehman, who also made bogey on the final hole to tie for second with Donald and Charles Howell III. “Until the end, I felt I had a chance. I mis-hit an 8-iron, and that kind of took the wind out of my sails.”
Sunday struggles are becoming a familiar refrain for Lehman, who failed to convert a third-round lead for the fourth time in his past five starts dating to last season’s Michelin Championship at Las Vegas.
“I’m sick of strong showings,” he said.
Despite his final-round woes, Lehman was encouraged by his strong start to the season. He even toyed with the idea of earning a spot on the 2006 Ryder Cup team he’s been tabbed to captain.
“To me, it’s a goal, a dream. I’d like to be able to play well to be on the team. It would be a unique situation,” Lehman said. “It would be an upset if I made the team at this point. But if my game keeps progressing, you never know.”
Making the Ryder Cup team doesn’t seem to be a concern for Woods. Nor does he seem stymied by the swing changes that confounded him last year. He hit fewer than half his fairways (25 of 56)
at Torrey Pines, but Woods was second in putts per round and made just one bogey over his final 18 holes.
“I didn’t hit it my best,” said Woods, who spent much of the week in his hotel room recovering from a bout with the flu. “My mechanics are sound enough now that I could place my misses. Now
I know what to do, what to fix and how to fix it out there.”