Tiger pounces back

Mickelson folds to "inferior equipment"

Posted: Monday, February 17, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- Tiger Woods had no pain in his left knee, no rust in his game and no trouble with Phil Mickelson.

Playing for the first time since Dec. 12 surgery, Woods looked better than ever Sunday by winning the Buick Invitational in another runaway.

In an electric atmosphere more suited for a prize fight, Woods delivered an early knockout and closed with a 4-under 68 for a four-stroke victory.

''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.''

Not bad for a guy using inferior equipment, as Mickelson recently suggested.

Woods hit every fairway early in the round to expand his lead. He hit a 4-iron into the wind to 3 feet on the par-3 11th to seal the win, and he thrilled the crowd with a shot out of the rough into 15 feet for an improbable birdie on No. 15.

''I got better each and every day,'' Woods said. ''That's just getting back into the competitive spirit.''

Though the two-month layoff was the longest of his career, it looked as if Woods was never gone.

''He's obviously a very impressive player,'' Mickelson said after a round of 72. ''He played some exceptional shots in the wind. It would have been tough to catch him.''

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

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.

He also sent a message to Ernie Els, who won by 10 shots earlier Sunday 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.

As for Mickelson, his consolation prize was hitting it past Woods off the tee, although he was 25 yards sideways on a couple of holes that left him scrambling. Mickelson didn't record his first birdie until the 13th hole, and at that point he was seven behind.

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.''

The only hardware that mattered Sunday was the trophy Woods was holding.

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.

Mickelson was never a threat and shot 72 to tie for fourth, along with Briny Baird and Arron Oberholser.

Woods and Mickelson 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.

''I'll be the judge,'' Faxon said jokingly after the third round.

He, too, was just a spectator.

Woods and Mickelson warmed up about 15 yards apart on the north end of the practice range, although they minded their own business. 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.

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.

Mickelson was some 20 yards beyond Woods on the sixth hole, although what happened next illustrated the real gap. Woods just missed the green on the par 5 in a bunker left and easily got up-and-down for birdie.

Lefty went well to the right, chipped through the green and had to settle for par. That left him five strokes behind, and it only got worse.

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