January 27, 2008

Weather Forecast: June Gloom

Tiger Woods romps (again) at Torrey Pines, leaving opponents without the foggiest notion of how to stop him at the U.S. Open

Catch me if you can: Woods closed with a 71 to salt away his 62nd PGA Tour win, equaling Palmer's total.

Catch me if you can: Woods closed with a 71 to salt away his 62nd PGA Tour win, equaling Palmer's total.

For gentlemen of the PGA Tour, the good news is that Tiger Woods will be in Dubai this week. The bad news is that he will return. Woods never really abdicates the throne, even when he is absent from competition for three months, but on the chance that peers tried selective amnesia as an antidote for what they're up against, reality struck last Thursday morning at Torrey Pines GC. Woods made his season debut dressed in a sweater vest over a skin-tight thermal garment that accentuated muscularity worthy of a defensive back. One could only imagine what the lads on the practice green were thinking: "I couldn't beat this guy before ... what am I going to do now that his arms are bigger than my legs?"

The world's No. 1 golfer corroborated the obvious. "I'm stronger than ever," said Tiger, who clearly did not spend his vacation asking wife Elin to pass the bread. Whether Woods will be better than ever is the question, but rust is not. Save for occasional disobedience from his driver and three consecutive bogeys (!) on his closing nine after building a lead of 11 that approached the Super Bowl XLII point spread, this really would have been a walkover. As it is, Woods' windswept 71 Sunday -- his worst score during four days of botched weather forecasts -- sufficed for a 19-under 269 and an eight-shot Buick Invitational victory over Ryuji Imada. The triumph was his fourth in a row at this event and sixth overall at Tiger Pines. With it, Woods tied Arnold Palmer with 62 career titles. Tiger is 32. The King won his last at 43. Palmer issued a perfunctory statement of congratulations, but Tiger, who shares Arnold's gift of jab, suspects their exchange will be saltier when they next meet.

Ever since Woods mentioned on his website that a 2008 Grand Slam is a swell idea, he has been dropping pearls to indicate the level of satisfaction he has about his game. Last week, the bon mots included, "I'm hitting shots that I couldn't hit in 2000," and "my good years are still ahead of me." Woods does not wear these warnings on his biceps. Rather, they invariably are responses to inquiries. Remember he is also his severest critic this side of Jim Brown. But Woods likes where he's headed beyond Dubai, slam rhymes with Sam, the name of his beloved infant daughter, and even Hank Haney, Woods' sultan of swing, is dispensing clues. "Usually, after Christmas, Tiger goes looking for some snow," Haney related. "This year, no snow. No skiing. Practice."

After Woods' seminar of 66 Saturday, his 14th straight PGA Tour round of 67 or better, Justin Leonard served succinctly as group spokesman. "There are two tournaments going on," he announced. "I'm going to try to win the tournament that Tiger Woods isn't playing in." Woods promptly opened the final round with a bomb for birdie on No. 1, made a ridiculously brilliant exit from a bog behind the ninth green to save par, then canned a back-to-the-target 60-footer with a 15-foot right-to-left downhill break on No. 11. That was for birdie, and that was so sick it needed a note from the doctor. He wobbled on Nos. 14 through 16 for those three eyesores on a card that bore only two other squares for the week. Probed about his last pratfall of such an epic nature, Woods gladly dived into his self-deprecation mode by resurrecting how he closed Palmer's Bay Hill shindig last March: bogey, double bogey, triple bogey for 43. "I was worried," quipped Woods, "when I played my next event, Doral, hoping I didn't make quad on the first hole."

Once again, the tour's new 36-hole cut rule was invoked. By dusk Friday, 85 players were at one-over-par 145, but as per the legislation, the field was reduced to the number closest to 70. That was 66, meaning 19 golfers were awarded $9,880 and 47 FedEx Cup points each before leaving. The paring process makes sense with limited daylight and early West Coast signoffs for eastern TV zones (Woods' Sunday threesome still consumed four hours, 58 minutes) but several players in that plus-one bracket expressed annoyance at the situation and one gets the drift that this restlessness in the ranks is not going to vanish. Woods had an oft-uttered solution: "Play better." Still, the guys on the outside looking in are stewing. But life isn't fair, and you can't have everything, can you? Four wounded Iraq War veterans were brought in Friday as honorary announcers. Each of them was missing at least one arm or one leg. None complained about serving his country.

Phil Mickelson

Although Woods recited how comfortable he is at Torrey Pines, he didn't equate last week's victory with an automatic trophy lift when the U.S. Open is staged there this June. The weather will be different, he cautioned. The lines will change, and the greens will be harder. Like daylight savings, balls that fall back in January will spring ahead after the USGA parboils the place. Also, the configuration will be altered. For instance, the sixth hole on the South course will become a long par 4 instead of a par 5 (thus reducing overall par to 71), and No. 13, a 541-yard par 5 now, will grow to more than 600 yards thanks to a new tee hard by the Pacific Ocean.

Phil Mickelson, also embarking on his 2008 schedule, shook off a respiratory ailment to revisit a course about which he packed significant hometown knowledge before the 2001 redesign. He looks trim and expressed enthusiasm for the season, but he was understandably uneven. Within 15 minutes Friday, he snap-hooked one tee ball, then launched a flare that ballooned as if highjacked by the sea breezes. Saturday he went out in 30, but came back in 38. Sunday he carved a 71 from a rain-softened layout that begat lift-clean-and-place for a T-6, 13 shots wide of Woods. "I'm not really sharp," he said. Mickelson, who lives nearby, was trailed by friends, family and a security cordon that included Officer Paul D. Hubka of the San Diego Police Dept. He was athletic director at Mickelson's grade school, and the left-hander still calls him "Coach."

Before the tournament, Woods addressed a variety of topics during the first of what figures to be numerous press gatherings this season, and first of five last week. Predictably, a few hands were raised about Kelly Tilghman, the Golf Channel anchor who resumed work after her two-week suspension. Tilghman was unavailable to reporters -- it is unknown whether she was airlifted to her post by helicopter or just slept in the booth to avoid paparazzi. But Woods forgave Tilghman again for her use of the inflammatory word "lynch" and strongly urged that this ongoing battle of the bilge cease and desist. Woods has been criticized for failing to take a strong stand on worldly matters, such as a noose on the cover of a magazine. As usual, he had a perfect rejoinder. "I am socially active every day of my life," intoned Woods, referring to his foundation. Some celebrities are about sound bites and catchy phrases. Others are about bricks and mortar. Woods, an eloquent ambassador for the game he dominates, also builds buildings. "Did you see those kids here from our learning center?" he said. "They were coming all week. Most of them have never been on a golf course. That means more to me than talking about that thing with Kelly, which got completely out of hand."

Torrey Pines is city property and thus subject to an ordinance that prohibits smoking anywhere on the grounds, including outdoors. This could pose some problems in June, when Angel Cabrera defends his Open title. Tobacco was his amigo last year at Oakmont, although the rumor is that he has quit cigarettes. However, John Daly hasn't, and he encountered a member of the smoke police during a practice round. "A woman marshal told me I couldn't," Daly recounted. "I showed her my badge, and once I convinced her that I was a player, she said it was OK. I guess because we're inside the ropes, which is not considered a public domain because the public can't get in there, we're clear."

Daly began his week by having a meeting with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. Ever since Golf Channel dropped "The Daly Planet," Big John has wondered exactly who pulled the plug. "I heard it was Finchem, not the network," Daly said. "So I asked Tim to his face, and he said it was not him or the tour. And I believe him." Daly also brought up his recent lurid autobiography for which he took heat from the tour. "Then when it started selling like crazy, they put it in the front window of all their airport stores," Daly said, chuckling now. "So they made money off it while they were ripping it. Tim characterized some of the stories in there as 'unbecoming of a professional.' I told Tim my whole life has been unbecoming of a professional. Got a laugh out him on that. He thought that was funny. I think."