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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