Woods leaves no doubt in return, wins by four strokes

Updated: February 19, 2003, 4:38 PM ET
Associated Press

Comparing the cards ...

Hole 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9101112131415161718Total  
Yardage452 387 198 483 453 560 462 176 613 405 221 504 541 435 477 227 442 5717607 
Par 4  4  3  4  4  5  4  3  5 4 3 4 5 4 4 3 4 572288
Woods 4 3 3 4 3 4 5 3 5 4 2 4 5 4 3 3 4 5 68 272
+/- E -1 -1 -1 -2 -3 -2 -2 -2 -2 -3 -3 -3 -3 -4 -4 -4 -4 -4 -16
Mickelson 4 4 3 4 4 5 4 3 5 4 4 5 4 4 4 3 4 5 72 278
+/- E E E E E E E E E E +1 +2 +1 E E E E E E -10

SAN DIEGO -- His left knee felt great, his game was as sharp as ever. The real treat for Tiger Woods was holding another trophy at the Buick Invitational.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods will add a 35th PGA Tour trophy to his mantle.

''I missed competing,'' Woods said Sunday. ''Having to hit a golf shot that matters, that gives me a big rush. I really missed that.''

He didn't miss a beat during his time off from Dec. 12 surgery and, as usual, he had no problem with Phil Mickelson.

Woods was accurate off the tee and dynamite with his irons, closing with a 4-under 68 on Sunday for a four-shot victory at Torrey Pines.

Mickelson, who recently poked fun at Woods by saying he used ''inferior'' equipment, never challenged in the final group and finished six shots behind.

We should have known
Only the most optimistic golf prognosticators gave Tiger Woods a chance to win this week in his first tournament after December knee surgery.

And among the enlightened few, even fewer believed he would do so in such dominant fashion.

But looking back, why shouldn't we all have picked Tiger to take the PGA Tour by storm in his return? After all, hasn't he been doing that for the last seven years? The Tiger Slam. The 12-stroke victory at Augusta in 1997. The 15-shot runaway at the U.S. Open in 2000. The entire 2000 season.

We should have known.

We wanted to believe that equipment technology, increased fitness and an influx of young talent had brought the field closer to Tiger, that Woods would have a harder time than ever maintaining his position as the No. 1 player in the game -- especially considering the long layoff.

As it turns out, it was business as usual for Woods in his return engagement, and -- outside of a machine named Ernie -- there's no evidence that points to the contrary for the rest of 2003.

While rusty in his first round Thursday, Tiger was his old self Friday and into the weekend. And wouldn't you know it, he saved his best performance for Sunday.

Now who could have guessed that?

More stats and analysis in ESPN.com's Weekend Wrapup.

''He's just a very impressive player,'' Mickelson said. ''It isn't easy to step in and out of competition, and he never gives anything back. I knew I was fighting an uphill battle.''

For Woods, the rush was not just walking up the 18th fairway to the cheers of an enormous gallery.

It was the 4-iron from 231 yards on No. 11 that covered the flag and stopped 3 feet away for birdie. It was another 4-iron from 200 yards in ankle-deep rough on No. 15 that Woods carved around a tree to 15 feet for the clincher.

''He looked like he'd been playing for weeks in a row,'' playing partner Brad Faxon said. ''Every part of his game was on. It's hard to imagine someone playing any better.''

Though the two-month layoff was the longest of his career, Woods wasted no time answering any questions about his health or his game.

Carl Pettersson of Sweden had a 69 to finish four strokes behind, although he was never a factor. Faxon was the only challenger until he ran into problems off the tee. He shot 72 to finish third at 277.

Mickelson didn't make a birdie until the 13th hole and finished with a 72, sharing fourth place with Briny Baird and Arron Oberholser.

Woods won for the 35th time on the PGA Tour, and it was his 11th tour victory by at least four shots. He also improved his record to 27-2 when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead, and this was as easy as any of them.

The defining shot came at the 231-yard 11th hole, when his 4-iron never left the flag and stopped 3 feet in front of the hole.

What rust?

''I haven't hit too many money shots,'' he said. ''At least not this kind of money.''

Woods finished at 16-under 272 and earned $810,000.

Phil Mickelson
The highly anticpated duel between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson never really materialized Sunday.

He also sent a message to Ernie Els, who has emerged as his chief rival. Woods spent the morning watching highlights of Els' 10-stroke victory at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Australia, his fourth victory in five events this year.

The top two players in the world won't get together until the Match Play Championship in two weeks just north of San Diego.

''Everybody makes a big deal of how far he's hitting it,'' Woods said. ''You can hit it 400 yards, but you've still got to make the putts.''

That was a subtle message for Mickelson, too.

In an interview with Golf magazine, Mickelson said: ''He hates that I can fly it by him now. He has a faster swing speed than I do, but he has inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player good enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with.''

Mickelson apologized for the remark this week. Both said it was no longer an issue, although Woods didn't forget it.

''Tiger was gracious about it, but I think he uses it as fuel,'' Faxon said. ''As if he needs any more.''

Lefty's consolation prize Sunday was hitting it past Woods off the tee, although he was 25 yards sideways on a couple of holes.

''He flew it by me a couple of times today, but I hit more fairways,'' Woods said. ''I wasn't trying to pound it out there because I knew the rough was pretty high. I felt like it was more important to get the ball in play.''

It was the 26th time Woods has won a PGA Tour event with Mickelson in the field, while Lefty has won only six of those tournaments.

Woods' head-to-head record over Mickelson is 65-28-3.

The two said they cleared the air over the equipment dispute earlier this week, and there were so signs of acrimony inside the ropes.

''I enjoy playing with him. I always have,'' Mickelson said. ''My success rate isn't that great, but I enjoy the challenge.''

Woods started the final round with a one-stroke lead over Faxon, but the crowd was energized by Mickelson joining the group. It was the first time Woods and Mickelson had played in the final group since the 2001 Masters, which Woods won for an unprecedented fourth straight major.

Woods and Mickelson warmed up about 15 yards apart on the north end of the practice range. Their first exchange was over equipment -- a handshake on the first tee, and letting each other know what ball they were playing.

The gallery lined the entire length of the 452-yard first hole, standing 15 yards deep in spots to see a battle that never developed.

''The fans were excited about the possibilities,'' Woods said. ''I think that showed.''

Not for long.

Woods holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the second hole -- Mickelson missed from 15 on the same line. Woods hit fairways, Mickelson hit a police officer in the ankle, the ball bouncing down a hill and into swampy rough.

After Woods' birdie on the 11th, everyone else was playing for second -- as usual.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press