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Tiger Woods is the biggest buzzkill in golf. He has made a second career of snuffing out any good story line that doesn't involve himself. Ask the lost generation of twentysomethings like Sergio Garc�a and Adam Scott, who have been relegated to afterthoughts by Woods's dominance. Ask poor Ernie Els, whose major championship dreams have so often disappeared during Woods's pitiless march to history. � Woods was up to his usual tricks at last week's Ford Championship at Doral, where, for a while, the leader board was alive with intriguing possibilities. After two rounds Woods was tied for the lead with Phil Mickelson, sending expectations soaring of a rematch of their unforgettable Sunday shootout at last year's Ford, which Woods won, of course. Also lurking was Camilo Villegas, a dashing rookie from the University of Florida by way of Colombia who was propelled by boisterous support from huge galleries drawn heavily from Miami's Latino community. Throw in David Toms trying to win for the second time since heart surgery last fall and fun-loving Rich Beem looking for his first victory since shocking Woods at the 2002 PGA Championship, and it could have been a memorable weekend. Instead, Woods choked the life out of the tournament with his ruthless efficiency. � The Ford turned on the back nine last Saturday, when Woods shot an airtight 33 (on his way to a four-under 68) while his closest pursuers, Mickelson and Villegas, made costly mistakes down the stretch. Mickelson suffered a couple of short-game meltdowns and then drowned his approach on the unforgiving 18th hole of the Blue Monster, shooting a 72 (with 37 blows on the back) that left him four back of Woods. Before the 24-year-old Villegas played the 18th, he allowed his mind to wander about how cool it would be to be paired with Woods in the final twosome on Sunday. He needed a par to secure that tee time but instead made a double-bogey 6, dropping to a tie for third, three back.
These late reversals of fortune left Woods two strokes clear of the field and, based on his track record, rendered the final round a mere formality. Coming into Doral, Woods was 19 for 19 closing out 54-hole leads of two strokes or more. At the Ford he did it again, though a bit of untidiness at the end of the round allowed for a little 18th-hole drama.
For each of his pursuers a victory would have been meaningful for any number of reasons, but Woods's 48th win on the PGA Tour meant little except to reaffirm him as the overwhelming favorite heading into the Masters, four weeks hence. Since December he has won four of five starts in stroke-play tournaments in three countries: the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, the Dubai Desert Classic and the Ford. (Midway through last month's Nissan Open he withdrew because of the flu after making the cut on the number.) He will tee it up two more times before roaring into Augusta to defend a title he won while in the midst of a swing overhaul. How far has Woods come in a year?
"Oh, a lot further," he said on Sunday evening. "I'm able to hit so many more shots now than I could last year at this time, and on top of that I can fix it while I'm out there playing. Last year at this time I had so many things I was still working on that I had a hard time, because if I hit one [bad] shot it could be three, four different things I needed to work on to try and rectify that shot. Now I know exactly what to do, and I can rectify it on the very next shot."
For his would-be competition, the scariest stat of the week had to be the 11 fairways Woods hit on Thursday. With all that short grass under his feet, 64 was about the worst he could have shot. His driving was characteristically ragged the rest of the way, but it is becoming increasingly irrelevant where he hits it off the tee. He is pounding the ball so far that even if his drives find the rough he can still muscle short irons and wedges at the flag. On Sunday, Woods hit only two fairways on the front side but reached all nine greens in regulation and shot three under. Woods's magic out of the rough sent NBC's Johnny Miller on a tiresome rant against square-grooved irons because it's easier to spin the ball out of bad lies. (Hey, Johnny, square grooves have been around since the mid-1980s. Woods is simply better than everybody else at putting them to use.)
Mickelson is one of the few players who has the talent to challenge Woods in a game of greenside H-O-R-S-E, but Phil came into Doral ranked 152nd in the Tour's scrambling stat this year, getting up and down only 53.7% of the time. That's less an indictment of his wedge game than his putting, which has been subpar all season. In six events Mickelson has missed 28 putts of seven feet or less. "Phil could have won a couple of times already this year if his putter was hot," says Rick Smith, Mickelson's swing coach, citing Phil's four top 10s. "He hasn't been making the putts that can save a round and propel you forward."
Mickelson's other 13 clubs contributed to his milquetoast 72-73 weekend at Doral. He was still in contact with the leaders on Sunday until pulling a three-wood into the lake on the par-5 8th hole, then blowing an eight-foot par putt. On the next hole he blocked his tee shot into another lake, making double bogey. Rinse and repeat.
Mickelson's Sunday swoon evoked memories of a final-round 73 at the Buick Invitational and a closing 77 at Pebble Beach, but he doesn't sound overly concerned about his sluggish start to the year. "I'm simply trying to get my game to come around for the majors," he says.
Mickelson will be 36 this year, and he is aware that he can't waste any opportunities to add to his legacy. The story of the West Coast swing was the emergence of rookies Villegas, J.B. Holmes, 24, and Bubba Watson, 27, who seemingly overnight have bashed their way to the forefront of the game. Watson leads the Tour in driving distance at 320.9 yards a pop, while Holmes is second (313.3) and Villegas fifth (306.3).
The scary thing is that they're more than simply bombers. In only his fourth start on Tour, Holmes won the FBR Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., by seven shots with the round of the year, a closing 66. Watson was fourth in his first start at the Sony Open and backed that up with a tie for third in Tucson, where he became the first player on Tour since Lee Trevino in 1974 to go 72 holes without a bogey. Villegas, who tied for second in Scottsdale, has as much game as either one of them and more style than both put together.