Tiger Woods isthe biggest buzzkill in golf. He has made a second career of snuffing out anygood story line that doesn't involve himself. Ask the lost generation oftwentysomethings like Sergio García and Adam Scott, who have been relegated toafterthoughts by Woods's dominance. Ask poor Ernie Els, whose majorchampionship dreams have so often disappeared during Woods's pitiless march tohistory. ¬∂ Woods was up to his usual tricks at last week's Ford Championship atDoral, where, for a while, the leader board was alive with intriguingpossibilities. After two rounds Woods was tied for the lead with PhilMickelson, sending expectations soaring of a rematch of their unforgettableSunday shootout at last year's Ford, which Woods won, of course. Also lurkingwas Camilo Villegas, a dashing rookie from the University of Florida by way ofColombia who was propelled by boisterous support from huge galleries drawnheavily from Miami's Latino community. Throw in David Toms trying to win forthe second time since heart surgery last fall and fun-loving Rich Beem lookingfor his first victory since shocking Woods at the 2002 PGA Championship, and itcould have been a memorable weekend. Instead, Woods choked the life out of thetournament with his ruthless efficiency. ¬∂ The Ford turned on the back ninelast Saturday, when Woods shot an airtight 33 (on his way to a four-under 68)while his closest pursuers, Mickelson and Villegas, made costly mistakes downthe stretch. Mickelson suffered a couple of short-game meltdowns and thendrowned his approach on the unforgiving 18th hole of the Blue Monster, shootinga 72 (with 37 blows on the back) that left him four back of Woods. Before the24-year-old Villegas played the 18th, he allowed his mind to wander about howcool it would be to be paired with Woods in the final twosome on Sunday. Heneeded a par to secure that tee time but instead made a double-bogey 6,dropping to a tie for third, three back.
These latereversals of fortune left Woods two strokes clear of the field and, based onhis track record, rendered the final round a mere formality. Coming into Doral,Woods was 19 for 19 closing out 54-hole leads of two strokes or more. At theFord he did it again, though a bit of untidiness at the end of the roundallowed for a little 18th-hole drama.
For each of hispursuers a victory would have been meaningful for any number of reasons, butWoods's 48th win on the PGA Tour meant little except to reaffirm him as theoverwhelming favorite heading into the Masters, four weeks hence. SinceDecember he has won four of five starts in stroke-play tournaments in threecountries: the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines,the Dubai Desert Classic and the Ford. (Midway through last month's Nissan Openhe withdrew because of the flu after making the cut on the number.) He will teeit up two more times before roaring into Augusta to defend a title he won whilein the midst of a swing overhaul. How far has Woods come in a year?
"Oh, a lotfurther," he said on Sunday evening. "I'm able to hit so many moreshots now than I could last year at this time, and on top of that I can fix itwhile I'm out there playing. Last year at this time I had so many things I wasstill working on that I had a hard time, because if I hit one [bad] shot itcould be three, four different things I needed to work on to try and rectifythat shot. Now I know exactly what to do, and I can rectify it on the very nextshot."
For his would-becompetition, the scariest stat of the week had to be the 11 fairways Woods hiton Thursday. With all that short grass under his feet, 64 was about the worsthe could have shot. His driving was characteristically ragged the rest of theway, but it is becoming increasingly irrelevant where he hits it off the tee.He is pounding the ball so far that even if his drives find the rough he canstill muscle short irons and wedges at the flag. On Sunday, Woods hit only twofairways on the front side but reached all nine greens in regulation and shotthree under. Woods's magic out of the rough sent NBC's Johnny Miller on atiresome rant against square-grooved irons because it's easier to spin the ballout of bad lies. (Hey, Johnny, square grooves have been around since themid-1980s. Woods is simply better than everybody else at putting them touse.)
Mickelson is oneof the few players who has the talent to challenge Woods in a game of greensideH-O-R-S-E, but Phil came into Doral ranked 152nd in the Tour's scrambling statthis year, getting up and down only 53.7% of the time. That's less anindictment of his wedge game than his putting, which has been subpar allseason. In six events Mickelson has missed 28 putts of seven feet or less."Phil could have won a couple of times already this year if his putter washot," says Rick Smith, Mickelson's swing coach, citing Phil's four top 10s."He hasn't been making the putts that can save a round and propel youforward."
Mickelson's other13 clubs contributed to his milquetoast 72-73 weekend at Doral. He was still incontact with the leaders on Sunday until pulling a three-wood into the lake onthe par-5 8th hole, then blowing an eight-foot par putt. On the next hole heblocked his tee shot into another lake, making double bogey. Rinse andrepeat.
Mickelson'sSunday swoon evoked memories of a final-round 73 at the Buick Invitational anda closing 77 at Pebble Beach, but he doesn't sound overly concerned about hissluggish start to the year. "I'm simply trying to get my game to comearound for the majors," he says.
Mickelson will be36 this year, and he is aware that he can't waste any opportunities to add tohis legacy. The story of the West Coast swing was the emergence of rookiesVillegas, J.B. Holmes, 24, and Bubba Watson, 27, who seemingly overnight havebashed their way to the forefront of the game. Watson leads the Tour in drivingdistance at 320.9 yards a pop, while Holmes is second (313.3) and Villegasfifth (306.3).
The scary thingis that they're more than simply bombers. In only his fourth start on Tour,Holmes won the FBR Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., by seven shots with the round ofthe year, a closing 66. Watson was fourth in his first start at the Sony Openand backed that up with a tie for third in Tucson, where he became the firstplayer on Tour since Lee Trevino in 1974 to go 72 holes without a bogey.Villegas, who tied for second in Scottsdale, has as much game as either one ofthem and more style than both put together.
Says Mickelson,"Watching these guys hit balls, it's very ... well, I don't do it verylong. It's intimidating. We talked about this five years ago--that the nextgeneration of player was going to be an athlete who can take advantage of thetechnology, that they can hit bombs but also chip and putt. So they'rebasically long-drive guys who can play. That's what we are seeing in J.B.Holmes and Bubba Watson and Villegas."
Villegas(pronounced vee-JAY-gus, hence his college nickname VJ) has the chance to be acrossover star thanks to his explosive game and the Latin lover thing he hasgoing on. At Doral his gallery set an unofficial Tour record for wolf whistlesand catcalls. Though still only 5'9" and 160 pounds, he's no longer thescrawny kid who showed up at Florida in 2000. "He was not very long, and itwasn't like you were in awe of him," says Gators coach Buddy Alexander."But he didn't simply buy into what we were doing in our program--he ranwith it as hard as he could. That's why I say he is the most disciplined playerI've ever had. He changed his diet. He established workout habits. He was avery good athlete to begin with, and when he got stronger, his clubhead speedand his ball speed shot up enormously."
Villegas was alsoa two-time academic All-American. While building a house in Gainesville, he issharing an apartment there with his younger brother, Manuel, a sophomore whoplays for Florida. No one will confuse their pad with Delta House. "He isvery clean, very organized, very picky," Manuel says of his roommate. Toillustrate the point Manuel slipped off a sneaker to display a white sock onthe top of which the number "4" had been written in ink. "He takesa pen and matches up each of his socks, even though they are allidentical," said Manuel, rolling his eyes.
Does Camilo knowhis little bro is pinching his socks? "He would not be pleased," Manuelsaid.
Camilo'sobsessive tendencies have been hurting him on the greens this year. "He'ssuch a perfectionist that he had 100 mechanical thoughts racing through hishead, and it's hard to make putts that way," says Villegas's sportspsychologist, Gio Valiante. "Camilo has so much talent he only needs todumb it down and play caveman golf--see ball, hit ball."
Before the finalround Valiante gave Villegas this short pep talk: "Don't think!"Wearing shoes, belt and wristband of Gators orange, Villegas responded bysetting Doral on its ear with an eagle on the 1st hole and shooting a fearless67 to finish 19 under.
Afterback-to-back birdies at 11 and 12, Woods was 22 under and leading by three. Butwhen Toms birdied 16 and Woods made a careless bogey at 17, the margin was downto one. On the brutal, 443-yard 18th, Toms had a 66-footer for birdie to tiefor the lead, but he three-putted for the first time all week, joining Villegasat 19 under. Back up by two, Woods played it safe with his second shot at 18,and his stress-free bogey was good for a one-shot victory.
No one wassurprised that Woods closed the deal. "He's the best in the world,"said Villegas, whose tie for second was worth $484,000, all but securing hisTour card for next year. "That's what he does."
For Woods thevictory was, well, nice, but there's no doubt what he's pointing toward. OnSunday evening he said, "A couple of putts out there reminded me ofAugusta." Naturally, he made all of them.
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