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PGA Tiger answers all questions in dominant return



Published: Thu, February 20, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Brad Faxon was the only serious challenger at the Buick Invitational.

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Tiger Woods spent two months out of golf recovering from knee surgery, the longest layoff of his career.

He needed only four days at the Buick Invitational to show that nothing has changed.

No pain in his left knee.

No rust in his game.

No problem with Phil Mickelson.

No reason to believe he's any less capable of hitting great shots on demand, and hoisting a trophy on the 18th green.

Woods was in control to the end Sunday, even conducting his own Q & amp;A.

Yes, he played well. Yes, that was a big birdie putt on No. 5. Oh, it's great to be back and even better to have won against a strong field.

"Any questions?" Woods asked to end his monologue.

No, he answered them all in the final round at Torrey Pines.

With another dominant performance in his first tournament since Dec. 12 surgery on his left knee, Woods closed with a 4-under 68 and won by four strokes over Carl Pettersson of Sweden.

The man to beat

He can still protect a 54-hole lead better than anyone. Woods is 27-2 on the PGA Tour when he has at least a share of the lead going into the final round.

He's still the man to beat. Ernie Els won for the fourth time this year earlier Sunday in Australia -- in fact, Woods watched the highlights before teeing off. They won't play in the same event until the Match Play Championship in two weeks.

Woods can still hit clutch shots, such as the 4-iron from 231 yards on the par-3 11th that covered the flag and stopped 3 feet short of the hole.

And he still has Mickelson's number.

"I know I answered my questions," Woods said. "Mine was whether this knee would hold up for 72 holes, and would it be sore. On top of that, my competitive feeling on the golf course came back. It was a successful week."

Woods finished at 16-under 272 for his 35th career victory on tour, making it the third time seven years that he has started a season by winning.

No. 11 was the key

Better yet, he left Mickelson in his wake -- again.

Mickelson, who a week ago poked fun at Woods by saying he used "inferior" equipment, never challenged in the final group and finished six shots behind with a 72.

"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 at No. 11 that effectively sealed his victory. It was a 4-iron from 200 yards in ankle-deep rough on No. 15 that Woods carved around a tree to 15 feet.

"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."

Faxon was the only serious challenger, but he ran into problems off the tee on the back nine and finished with a 72 for third place 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.

Lefty's comment

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.

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

Final round

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.

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




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