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Tiger poised for another dream season
The three other times Woods won his first event, plenty of success followed.
SAN DIEGO -- Tiger Woods stepped into the chill of the evening and headed to the airport for a 20-hour flight to Dubai, plenty of time to contemplate how fortunate he was to escape Torrey Pines with another victory and to wonder where it will take him the rest of the year.
Expectations figure to be greater than ever.
Woods once said the public tends to exaggerate the state of his game, perhaps because he can make it look easy. Win one tournament and people say he's unbeatable. Go a month without winning and he's in a slump.
"I've been out here long enough to have seen both ends of the spectrums," Woods said of the expectations. "They're always high. They've seen what I can do, and they think I can hit some shots. It's awfully nice that they think I can do that."
But his track record suggests another big year could be in the making.
His playoff victory Sunday in the Buick Invitational was the fourth time in his 10 years on the PGA Tour that Woods began the season with a victory. Each time, more trophies quickly followed.
First Masters awaited
In his first full season, he beat Tom Lehman in the '97 Mercedes Championships at La Costa by sticking a 7-iron inches from the cup on the first playoff hole. Three months later, the legend was born when he overwhelmed Augusta National to win the Masters by 12 shots.
Woods opened his historic 2000 season at Kapalua in a terrific battle with Ernie Els, matching eagles and birdies on the 18th hole before beating the Big Easy on the second playoff hole with a 40-foot birdie putt. By year's end, he had three straight majors among his nine victories.
And when he missed eight weeks recovering from knee surgery, Woods returned to the PGA Tour in 2003 by shutting down Phil Mickelson and his "inferior equipment" comments to win by four shots at Torrey Pines. Woods won two of his next three starts, including an 11-shot victory at Bay Hill, and ended the year with five wins.
Woods came close to missing out on the three-man playoff Sunday.
He was in an eight-way tie for the lead with six holes to play on the South Course, and was lucky no one else got hot enough to pull away. Struggling with the speed of the bumpy, poa annua greens throughout the final round, Woods three-putted three times, yet came up with two big par saves on the 16th and 17th.
And after running a length-of-the-green eagle putt 8 feet by the hole on the par-5 18th, he steadied himself to pour in the birdie putt to join Jose Maria Olazabal and Australian rookie Nathan Green in the playoff.
"Quite frankly, I shouldn't have even been in the playoff," Woods said.
From there, the outcome was no surprise.
Woods had two putts to win -- an 8-footer on the 18th in the playoff, and a 35-footer on the par-3 16th -- but got through when his opponents faltered. From about 40 feet away, Green took three shots to reach the green on the 18th and made bogey. On the next hole, Olazabal failed to capitalize on a sensational bunker shot by missing a tricky 4-foot par putt down the hill.
Nearly perfect in playoffs
Woods now is 9-1 in playoffs on the PGA Tour, and 12-1 worldwide. Billy Mayfair has become the answer to a trivia question as the only player to beat him (in the '98 Nissan Open at Valencia).
Along with his record, however, there is another reason why expectations are rising.
A year ago, Woods won at Torrey Pines in the fog by overcoming a two-shot deficit on the back nine to surge past Lehman and Luke Donald. It was an important victory, because it ended a 16-month drought of stroke-play titles on the PGA Tour while Woods retooled his swing.
He spent the rest of 2005 alternating between brilliant and ordinary -- two majors (the Masters and British Open), six victories, but also two missed cuts.
A year later, he is much closer to understanding his swing and learning how to fix it when it goes bad.
Woods took the longest self-imposed break of his career -- six weeks, not even touching a club the first 24 days -- and there was sure to be some rust. But he corrected his problems in a hurry.
He started the Buick Invitational by hitting only one out of 14 fairways on the pitch-and-putt North Course and shooting 71. But on the back nine of the South Course on the weekend, when he could have easily slipped out of contention, he rarely missed a tee shot.
He hit all but one of the final six fairways Sunday to give himself a chance.
"It's always more meaningful to do it whenever you have to," Woods said. "I had no choice. I had to hit the ball in play to give myself chances because I was behind. On the back nine, hitting the shots like I did off the tees, it felt just as good as hitting those last two shots at Augusta, when I absolutely had to."
The reference was to his playoff victory in the Masters last year. His best two shots were on the first extra hole, when he hit 3-wood in play and 8-iron to 15 feet for his fourth green jacket.
The Masters is more than two months away, and Woods will have six more tournaments to get ready. That starts this week at the Dubai Desert Classic, a field that includes Ernie Els.
"Last year, I had a long way to go. I had a lot of different things I needed to fix to be ready for Augusta," Woods said. "This year, the list is a lot shorter, and the changes aren't as big. From that standpoint, I've got a head start."
And winning his first event of the year never hurts.