WHAT THE Buick Invitational needed was that deep-voiced announcer guy from the movies saying, "In a world of firm fairways and fast greens, one man...." ¬∂ Granted, the fairways at Torrey Pines Golf Course weren't so firm last week. (The San Diego area got more than three inches of rain between Tuesday evening and Sunday.) The greens weren't so fast, either. But how about that one man? Tiger Woods won the Buick by a tournament-record eight strokes, tied Arnold Palmer for fourth in total PGA Tour victories at 62, and won his first start of the season for the sixth time. "He's firing on all cylinders," said third-place finisher Stewart Cink, whose awed expression suggested that he had heard the combustion in theater-grade Dolby Surround Sound. ¬∂ Had someone other than Woods won the Buick, the movie-trailer analogy might not be so apt. But consider the following.
• Torrey Pines South, the stronger of the two courses used for the Buick, will be the venue for the 2008 U.S. Open, June 12--15.
• Woods has won at Torrey Pines four years in a row. He has won six of the last seven Invitationals. Nearly 10% of Tiger's Tour wins have come at Torrey Pines. He won at Torrey when he was too young to drive a car (the 1991 Junior World Golf Championship at age 15).
• It has been eight years since a course has hosted a Tour event and a major championship in the same year. That course, Pebble Beach Golf Links, bears a striking resemblance to Torrey Pines South—i.e., fog-shrouded cliffs, barking sea lions, a pricey lodge.
February 4, 2008
• Tiger won the 2000 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He returned to the fog-shrouded cliffs four months later and won his first U.S. Open by a major-championship-record 15 strokes.
So how could you watch Tiger annihilate Torrey Pines and 153 other pros last week and not think preview?
January, of course, is not June, and the Buick is not the U.S. Open. For the Open the USGA will stretch Torrey South to 7,607 yards (last week it played at 7,569), shave par to 71, unveil some alternate tees and boost green speeds to stimpmeter levels of 13 or more. The man orchestrating these changes is Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions, but Davis was conspicuously absent at the Buick. "It's not our event, so I'm kind of low-keying it this week," he said from his office in Far Hills, N.J., adding, "To be honest, I don't think I would learn a lot from being there, because the conditions are so different."
That Davis could watch the Buick with his feet on his desk spoke volumes about Torrey South. Two years ago, while local interests squabbled over greens fees and tee times, the city-owned facility looked as if it might go to seed. The South's bentgrass greens, sodded during a Rees Jones--led renovation in 2001, were bumpy; the fairways, transitioning from bent to kikuyu grass, were brown and patchy. Some speculated that the USGA might have to step in—or even move the Open.
Those who were worrying can stop. Torrey's kikuyu has filled in nicely, and the bent greens have been converted to a healthy strain of poa annua. "The course is in marvelous condition," Davis said. "Talk to people who have been around there for decades, and they'll tell you the greens are the best they've ever been."
He was speaking agronomically. Torrey's greens were so soft last week that the pros could only guess how they will play in June. "It's like night and day," said Woods after a third-round 66. "We're backing up five-irons, and I've never seen that happen at a U.S. Open. Certain shots are ripping back 20 or 30 feet." Phil Mickelson, a native San Diegan and three-time winner of the Buick Invitational, said he was still trying to grasp the nuances of the rebuilt greens: "When the South was redesigned, I lost all that local knowledge gained from playing countless high school matches here."
WOODS, MEANWHILE, showed his contempt for dress rehearsals by running away with the tournament. He opened with a five-under 67 on the South and then shot a seven-under 65 on Torrey North (which the USGA will soon cannibalize for Open parking, a practice range and a tented village). Neither score reflected Tiger's A game—he hit only 13 of 28 fairways—but his iron play and putting were so good that he headed to the weekend with a four-stroke lead and an aura of invincibility. On Saturday he doubled his lead, which led Cink, who as one of his playing partners was never closer than he appeared in Tiger's rearview mirror, to speak for his peers. "If he's out of the fairway, it's only a few steps," Cink said, "and when he does come close to making a bogey, he makes a 20-footer for par. It's easy to get demoralized."
Woods led by as many as 11 strokes on Sunday, and neither his run of bogeys on holes 15 through 17 nor a final-round 67 by runner-up Ryuji Imada provided any real suspense.
With his victory, Woods tied Palmer and pulled within two of Ben Hogan on the career wins list. (The alltime victory leader is Sam Snead with 82, followed by Jack Nicklaus at 73.) Woods is also only two Buick Invitational trophies away from matching Snead's record of eight wins in a single Tour event—in Snead's case, the Greater Greensboro Open. "Some people," Woods explained, "simply have an affinity for certain courses." But it was another Woods quote that sent waves of panic through the ranks of world-class golfers: "I'm still getting better. I'm hitting shots I never could hit before, even in 2000."
The bigger question is whether Tiger's 2008 debut was a preview of the next U.S. Open or a preview of the entire season. "This will be the year that Tiger does the Grand Slam," said CBS's Nick Faldo, and nobody this side of Rory Sabbatini jumped up to say he was crazy. Woods himself had fueled the hype by blogging his desire to once again hold all four major trophies at once, as he did with his so-called Tiger Slam of '00--01. "For most of my career I've won more than four tournaments per year," he said last week, "and all I have to do is win the right four. So, yeah, I think it is possible."
In the end, you can only glean so much from a preview—a fragment of plot (hero returns to site of former triumphs), a buzz phrase ("I'm getting better!"), a four-second snippet during which something blows up or somebody gets slugged. Cink, who shared third with Sabbatini at seven under, made that point unintentionally when someone asked him who, besides Woods, the course suited.
"If you take Tiger out of the mix," Cink said, "you look for a guy who can hit straight, has a good short game and has been there a bunch of times in the past."
But how, his expression asked, do you take Tiger out of the mix?
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"I'm still getting better," Woods said. "I'M HITTING SHOTS I NEVER COULD HIT BEFORE, even in 2000."