The odd psychological drama pitting Tiger Woods against his glib left-handed foil, Phil Mickelson, played out again today with dismally familiar results.
Woods, in his first tournament since undergoing a minor knee operation two months ago, performed laser surgery on the Torrey Pines Golf Course. He shot a 4-under-par 68 with a bogey and won the Buick Invitational by four strokes over Sweden's Carl Pettersson, collecting another $810,000. Woods has won nearly $34 million in eight professional seasons.
Mickelson, the No. 3 player in the world, turned in another tortured performance, this time in his home town. Paired with Woods, surrounded by thousands of well-wishers, Mickelson shot par, finished six behind Woods in a tie for fourth and said he knew by a demoralizing 11th hole that "my chances of winning were out."
"The perception is, 'Oh, he lost another one to Tiger,' " said Mickelson, who has been on the PGA Tour for more than a decade but never has won a major championship. "But I look at it as a steppingstone to try to improve my game."
Today's showdown, on a windswept day high above the Pacific, came just two weeks after Mickelson was quoted as saying jokingly that Woods "hates that I can fly it past him now." Woods is the only player talented enough to overcome his "inferior" Nike equipment, Mickelson said.
The comments lit a match in the placid world of professional golf. Nike, a relative newcomer to the $4 billion golf equipment and apparel market, was outraged. Woods called Mickelson, who is sponsored by Titleist, a "smart aleck." Mickelson apologized -- to Woods, to Nike, to the players and anyone else who might have been offended.
"I shouldn't have gone there," he said last week.
As benign as the comments were, they seemed also to contribute to today's charged atmosphere, which to many tour observers had the feeling of a major.
With Mickelson, who started the day two behind, paired with Woods, nearly every hole was ringed with thousands of fans.
Arron Oberholser, who led after the first round, said he thought Mickelson's comments "created a buzz around the golf course."
"Ticket sales went up," Oberholser said, laughing, "and everybody wanted to see if they would come to blows, which I didn't think was going to happen."
Brad Faxon, who played in the same group with Woods and Mickelson, said: "There were a lot of comments from the crowd, a lot of people saying things. When you play in a situation where you hear a comment on every single hole from a variety of people, from Phil fans and Tiger fans, you've got to be immune to some of the stuff. If you don't have a thick skin, you could be mad."
Faxon said he thought Woods used the controversy as fuel against Mickelson. Woods said that he had thought about the controversy but not on the course. "Controversy does not hit you any shots or win the tournament," he said.
In truth, Woods never seemed vulnerable. Since his 1997 Masters victory, he is 28-1 when leading or tied for the lead after three rounds. He emerged in the morning, first on the tee, his eyes lidded, burning with intensity. Even his caddie, Steve Williams, seemed to have his game face on. By contrast, Mickelson, wearing two shirts even though the temperature was in the mid 60s, smiled wanly as he emerged to spirited applause.
Mickelson missed birdie putts on the first two holes by inches, and it seemed to set the tone for the day. Woods birdied the second hole. By the fourth, Mickelson was fighting his way out of casual water while Woods stood in the middle of the fairway, leaning against his club, watching the parasailers looping over the cliffs.
Mickelson salvaged par with a miraculous approach, but on the fifth Woods rammed another birdie, and Mickelson missed an eight-foot birdie try. By the time the tournament reached network TV at 3 p.m. Eastern time, Mickelson was four back.
On the 11th, a 231-yard par 3, Mickelson put his drive into the left bunker. Woods hit a 4-iron about four feet from the cup, on a small plateau in the upper left part of the green. Mickelson took a bogey, Woods made birdie and "at that point I just wanted to finish well," Mickelson said.
He put his next drive on a gravel cart path near a chain link fence left of the 12th fairway. There, amid the pungent smell of eucalyptus leaves, he dropped into the rough, then hit his second shot across the fairway into the right rough, below another eucalyptus tree.
Mickelson tried to chip out, but the ball hit a knoll in front of the green, then flopped into the sand trap like a beached flounder.
"Hey Phil," a fan shouted, "get some new equipment."
By the end of the hole, Woods was seven shots in front of Mickelson.
Afterward, Woods was almost giddy. He started a news conference by interviewing himself:
"So you played well?" Tiger asked.
"Yeah," Tiger responded.
"Are you excited to be back?" he asked himself.
"Yeah, I'm pretty excited to be back. On top of that, to have won the tournament is pretty exciting. To beat a field like this, I'm very excited about that."
Woods said his left knee, from which two cysts were extracted, never hurt, even after he played 27 holes Friday. He made four bogeys the whole tournament -- one in each round. More than anything, he said in what had to be chilling news for the rest of the tour, he was happiest to be competing again.
"When you're cooped up on the couch forever, you know, laying at home and just practicing -- I missed competing," he said. "That, to me, is my rush, is going out there and having to hit a golf shot that really matters. I missed that."