A bizarre victory by Woods

  • It's Tiger Woods' first stroke-play title on the PGA Tour in 16 months.

  • Published: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
    Last Modified: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 1:48 a.m.
    SAN DIEGO - The soupy fog clung to the cliffs, like something out of an old mystery movie. When the Buick Invitational ended in fading sunlight, the strangest sight of all might have been Tiger Woods holding the trophy.
    He started his 31-hole marathon Sunday with three straight bogeys.
    He finished it by hitting a 2-iron so bad that it actually turned out good.
    Woods ended the suspense with an 18-foot putt that he hit too hard, only to see it dive into the cup for a birdie that gave him his first stroke-play title on the PGA Tour in 16 months.
    Ending his longest stroke-play drought of his tour career, Woods let everyone else collapse around him in a series of errors and bad breaks, closing with a 4-under 68 for a three-shot victory that was a nail-biter.
    ''I hung in there,'' Woods said. ''This golf course is so difficult, anything can happen.''
    Just about everything did.
    Charles Howell III hit a sand wedge from 95 yards that was so perfect that it landed in the cup, and bounced out just as quickly into the pond as he watched in disbelief. An eagle turned into a bogey, he shot 72 and wound up three shots behind, along with Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman and Luke Donald.
    ''I didn't know whether to laugh or cry,'' Howell said. ''Obviously, it's a crazy game.''
    Donald was the model of consistency, in control of the tournament until a 6-iron went over the 14th green (double bogey) and a tee shot on the 17th went into the bushes (bogey). He shot 73.
    And there was Lehman, going toe-to-toe with Woods over the back nine and putting him under constant pressure only to run out of gas with bogeys on the last two holes.
    ''For 30 holes today, I held my own and I really liked my chances,'' Lehman said after closing with a 73. ''I'm really ticked off that I didn't win.''
    Ultimately, Woods almost made the biggest blunder of all.
    With a one-shot lead, Woods tried to hit the par-5 18th green with a 2-iron from 240 yards over the pond.
    ''I absolutely whiffed it,'' he said.
    Lucky him.
    The shot was fanned so badly that it landed on a tiny strip of fairway to the right of the pond.
    What saved him was Lehman, who needed a birdie to have any chance of winning and didn't even hit the green with a sand wedge. It came up short on the hill, he chipped past and missed the par putt.
    ''He whipped the field playing lousy,'' Lehman said. ''I give him a lot of credit.''
    Woods finished at 16-under 262 and earned $864,000, putting him atop the PGA Tour money list for the first time in 16 months. It was his first stroke-play victory since the American Express Championship in October 2003.
    Woods' only tour victory last year was the Match Play Championship just up the road at La Costa. He also won late last year in Japan, which he said was an indication his game was on the right path.
    It was his first final-round comeback since he also came from two shots behind to beat Jim Furyk in the 2001 NEC Invitational. Only this was hardly a stirring rally.
    Woods was simply the last man standing.
    ''I didn't hit it my best, there's no doubt about that,'' he said. ''I wasn't feeling all that comfortable with my swing. But I was just kind of grinding around. I relied on my short game, which was beautiful.''
    He also relied on Lehman, who hasn't won in five years and squandered a great chance to become the first active Ryder Cup captain to win on the PGA Tour since Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters.
    Lehman hit every fairway on the back nine, but he stumbled at the end - an 8-iron into a plugged lie in the bunker on No. 17, then his wedge that came up short of the green on the 18th.
    Lehman has failed to win his last seven tournaments when he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, dating to the 1996 Tour Championship at Southern Hills.
    Bernhard Langer, the European captain last year at Oakland Hills, closed with a 72 and finished fifth.
    Vijay Singh completed a 68 in the morning to get to within six shots, but then bogeyed three of his first seven holes and never recovered. He closed with a 75 and finished out of the top 10 for the first time since he became No. 1 in September, ending a streak of eight straight top 10s on the PGA Tour.
    Phil Mickelson made an inauspicious debut to his 2005 season. He soared to a 78 early Sunday, then closed with a 71 to finish 15 shots behind.
    Woods and Lehman were tied for the lead at 14 under when they returned to Torrey Pines to surprisingly clear skies Sunday morning to complete the third round.
    Lehman was in the same spot after 54 holes - only he was tied with Donald, who played another bogey-free round on the South course in 67 to join Lehman at 202.
    Despite the sunny morning conditions, Woods played like he was in a fog. He bogeyed his first three holes, then ended his third round of 72 by making bogey on the par-5 ninth.
    But he wound up with his 41st career victory, one that was unlike any other.
    Divots: Bill Haas, playing on the first of seven sponsor's exemptions allowed on the PGA Tour, closed with a 70 to finish at 7-under 281 in a tie for 18th; Haas will play next week in the Bob Hope Classic, then head to Australia for the start of the Nationwide Tour. ... Singh's 75 was his highest score since he closed with a 76 to win the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. ... Woods won for the sixth time in San Diego County - three times at Buick Invitational, twice at the Match Play Championship and once at the Mercedes Championships in 1997 when it was held at La Costa.

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