SAN DIEGO, Feb. 17 - The return of Tiger Woods was all about distance. First, Phil Mickelson poked fun at him by saying he could hit the ball farther off the tee. Then, Woods showed how wide the gap really is between their games.
InsertArt(1793967)WOODS WAS OUT OF GOLF for two months because of knee surgery, and it looked as if he were never gone. After one round to get back into the flow, he posted three straight rounds in the 60s on the tough South Course at Torrey Pines.
The result was a four-stroke victory in the Buick Invitational, the 11th time he has won by at least that many shots on the PGA Tour.
“He’s just a very impressive player to watch,” said Mickelson, who started the final round two shots back and with the gallery on his side. When it was over, Lefty looked whipped in finishing six strokes behind.
“It isn’t easy to step in and out of competition, and he never gives anything back,” Mickelson said. “I like to play a couple of tournaments and work my way into a competitive mind-set. He’s able to walk in and out of it at will.”
Perhaps Mickelson had something to do with that.
Woods might have been eager to return after Ernie Els won the first two PGA Tour events, or after Vijay Singh won the Phoenix Open and then suggested Woods’ dominance might be ending.
What really got Woods’ attention was Mickelson’s interview with Golf Magazine, when he jokingly said that Woods “hates that I can fly it by him,” and that Woods is stuck with “inferior equipment.”
After belting one drive during his practice round Tuesday, Woods smiled and said, “Not bad for inferior equipment.”
The final round Sunday was billed as Woods vs. Mickelson, even though Brad Faxon was one shot between them and played well enough to have a chance until a couple of loose tee shots on the back nine.
It turned out to be a case study in how to win.
Mickelson did fly it by him on a number of occasions, most notably on the par-5 sixth hole by 19 yards. Woods went on to make birdie on the hole, while Mickelson hit a wild approach, chipped through the green and had to save par.
“He flew it by me a couple of times today, but I hit more fairways,” Woods said. “I think that’s where I probably won the tournament.”
Woods teed the ball lower, more interested in its trajectory and path that launching it against the blue skies over the Pacific Ocean.
Mickelson is one of the most exciting players in golf, a guy who never saw a pin he couldn’t attack. That cost him on the 11th hole, when he flared his tee shot to the left, and it landed in the upslope of a shaggy collar, leading to a bogey.
Woods rode the wind, the ball drawing gently toward the hole and stopping 3 feet away for an easy birdie.
“After 11, I knew I didn’t have a chance to win,” Mickelson said.
Since Woods turned pro in August 1996, he and Mickelson have played in 96 PGA Tour events. Woods has won 26 of them (compared with six for Mickelson) and has finished ahead of him 65 times.
That’s no disgrace - Woods has been beating everybody.
Still, the timing could not have been worse for Mickelson. One week after the interview was published, he wound up in the final pairing with world’s No. 1 player.
It didn’t help that Mickelson wasn’t playing his best Sunday. He was loose with the driver and switched putters in the middle of the tournament.
“To go against the best player in the world, spotting him two shots, I knew I was fighting an uphill battle,” Mickelson said. “When he got off to a quick start, I wasn’t able to keep pace, and I knew I was in trouble.”
That’s what Woods does best. He is now 27-2 when he has at least a share of the lead going into the final round. Struggling with his accuracy off the tee all week, he hit the first five fairways to set the tone.
Woods was asked if the victory was even sweeter because he played with Mickelson in the last group, and because of the equipment debate.
“Phil and I haven’t played a whole lot together in a final group,” Woods said.
That wasn’t the question.
“I know that,” Woods said with a smile. “I’m answering my way.”
Faxon, who considered wearing a referee’s shirt for the final round, thought otherwise.
“Phil talked to Tiger and said he messed up, and I think he was sincere,” Faxon said. “Tiger was gracious about it, too. But I think he uses it as fuel - as if he needs any more.”
It has been two years (the 2001 Buick Invitational) since Mickelson won a tournament with Woods in the field, and their rivalry could fade if Mickelson doesn’t start winning his share, or at least wins his first major.
The real challenge for Woods could be Els, who has won four of his first five events this year while traveling the world.
Woods and Els probably will play their first stroke-play tournament together in Dubai next month, which could indicate whether that gap is shrinking, or if it only looks that way.
© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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