Woods shows he is equipped to dominate

TIGER WOODS will not be searching for a new set of clubs. His return to the PGA Tour was like a rerun, a reminder to anyone who suspected that things had changed.

CLIFTON BROWN

TIGER WOODS will not be searching for a new set of clubs.

His return to the PGA Tour was like a rerun, a reminder to anyone who suspected that things had changed. Woods was still the boss, and everyone knew it, from the players who were chasing him to the gallery that was watching.

Tiger Woods drives off the 5th tee during the final round at the Buick Invitational PGA event at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, California. Woods, playing in his first tournament after knee surgery last year, shot a 4-under-par 68 to win at 16 under par. — Pic. REUTERS-

With every authoritative shot at Torrey Pines in La Jolla on that Sunday, Woods moved farther from the pack, turning what was expected to be an intense back-nine battle into a romp at the Buick Invitational. This was Woods' first tournament since Phil Mickelson, who uses Titleist equipment said Woods, who uses Nike, was the only player "good enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with."

Woods is stuck with extraordinary ability. He was not satisfied just to ease his way back into competition after knee surgery in December. He came back to win. He finished at 16-under-par 272 after a final-round 68 and won by four strokes over Carl Pettersson and by six strokes over Mickelson.

Woods tested his knee and his game here. Give him an A-plus.

"Phil and I haven't played in the final group that often, and when we do, we relish that," Woods said when asked about the controversy. "We enjoy competing against one another. After his comments, you have to put that aside. You have to play. He's ranked No. 3; he's capable of shooting any low number. You have to respond to that challenge. I thought I did that today.

"Whatever controversy there is, that's out the door on that first tee. That's not going to win you a golf tournament. Having controversy doesn't hit you any shots. You have to do that on your own."

Woods never relinquished his final-round lead. In front of a huge gallery, Woods was superb. Mickelson, who shot a 72 to finish at 10 under, never mounted a challenge.

Woods led by one stroke over Faxon and by two over Mickelson when the day began, but it was clear early on that Mickelson was not at his best. That happens often to players chasing Woods, knowing their task is difficult and that they cannot make mistakes.

Mickelson made pars on the first 10 holes, while Woods had three birdies and a bogey on the front nine, leaving Mickelson four strokes behind at the turn. Faxon, playing in the last group with Mickelson and Woods, trailed by only two strokes at the turn. But Faxon made only one birdie on the back nine, and Woods pulled away.

"I knew going into this week I wasn't playing well," said Mickelson, who grew up near Torrey Pines and who has won the Buick Invitational three times. "I thought to get into the last group and to finish fourth was a huge accomplishment. It just doesn't look as good, because again, I go head to head against Tiger, and I lose. But I knew going in that I was driving the ball crooked, that I was putting poorly. I switched putters in mid tournament. I hung in there. But the perception is, `Oh, he lost another one to Tiger.' I look at it as a stepping-stone and guidance on how to improve. And I've got plenty of time before Augusta."

Woods already looks in major championship form.

Mickelson has raved about the length he is getting with his Titleist driver and balls, and he outdrove Woods on several holes. But Woods won where it mattered, and he pointed out that he was driving the ball with control, worrying about accuracy more than distance.

"I wanted to keep the ball in the fairway at all costs," Woods said. He also wanted to win. "I've missed competing. That to me is my rush, going out there and having to hit a golf shot that really matters. That gives me a big rush. I've missed that. I've missed getting into a tournament and giving it my all.

"I answered my questions, whether this knee would hold up for 72 holes. I played 27 holes and it was fine. I'm pretty excited to be back. To beat a field like this, I'm very excited."

Buick invitational ($4.5 on par-72, 7,607-yard Torrey Pines South course in La Jolla, California, U.S. unless stated): Tiger Woods, 70-66-68-68-272, Carl Pettersson, Sweden 69-68-70-69-276, Brad Faxon 70-64-71-72-277, Briny Baird 70-65-72-71-278, Arron Oberholser 65-70-72-71-278, Phil Mickelson 69-68-69-72-278, Marco Dawson 68-66-76-69-279, Mark Calcavecchia 71-68-71-69-279, Charles Howell III 74-68-68-69-279, Luke Donald 69-70-71-69-279, Jonathan Kaye 68-67-72-72-279.

World rankings:

1. (1) Tiger Woods, U.S., 15.92 points average, 2. (2) Ernie Els. South Africa, 9.32, 3. (3) Phil Mickelson, U.S., 7.17, 4. (4) Vijay Singh, Fiji, 6.34, 5. (5) Retief Goosen, South Africa, 6.09, 6. (6) Sergio Garcia, Spain, 5.53, 7. (7) David Toms, U.S., 5.33, 8. (8) Davis Love, U.S., 5.31, 9. (9) Padraig Harrington, Ireland, 5.05, 10. (10) Chris DiMarco, U.S., 4.33, 11. (11) Jim Furyk, U.S., 4.13, 12. (13) Colin Montgomerie, Britain, 3.84, 13. (14) Rocco Mediate, U.S., 3.84, 14. (12) Nick Price, Zimbabwe, 3.77, 15. (15) Mike Weir, Canada, 3.71. (Last year's rankings in bracket)

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