Phil Mickelson will play this week at the FBR Open in Phoenix.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tiger Woods had just finished his latest masterpiece, an eight-stroke victory at the Buick Invitational that tied him with Arnold Palmer at 62 career victories, when he was asked about the possibility of winning his 63rd PGA Tour event in front of the King himself.

"Hopefully I can do it before then," Woods said with no trace of a smile. Granted, the Palmer Invitational is not until March 13-16, and Woods has won five of his last six starts on Tour. But he may enter only one Tour event before then, the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, in which a player must survive six straight matches to win, a crapshoot for anyone.

And yet he expects to win it. He should. He is simply that much better than the rest of the field, which leaves golf with one big question: Does anyone else matter?

Phil Mickelson will play this week at the FBR Open in Phoenix. Ernie Els will start his '08 season at the Euro tour's Dubai Desert Classic, where he'll have to contend with Woods. Will Mickelson or Els or some other player be revealed as the second best of 2008? And does it make any difference anymore?

Woods is so good right now that even some of his peers have begun to admit they don't have a prayer of catching him. He seemed to hit the afterburners when he won the Bridgestone Invitational and Tour Championship by eight strokes apiece last year, kept the pedal down with a mere seven-stroke win at the unofficial Target World Challenge, and got the margin back up to eight again at the Buick. Who cares about the Giants and the Patriots? Tiger Woods is a one-touchdown favorite.

The long-simmering storyline that a rival might rise to challenge him, so intriguing after Mickelson beat him eye-to-eye at the Deutsche Bank last fall, has gone tepid again. Ice cold, actually.

"Everybody says, 'Why isn't there somebody taking Tiger down' or, 'Why isn't there more competition' or whatever," Mark O'Meara said as he headed to the parking lot after shooting an 84 at Torrey Pines on Sunday. "Why don't you just say, 'Hey, this guy is so much better than everybody else, it's ungodly.'"

Mickelson tied for sixth place at the Buick, but for all the heat he put on Woods he may as well not have been there. Mickelson trailed Woods by three strokes after the first round despite playing the easier North Course while Woods toured the South, a much tougher track and the site of this year's U.S. Open. Mickelson was 11 behind through 36 holes. Tiger's A-game plus Phil's congestion and respiratory ills equaled no contest.

But Mickelson, ranked No. 2 in the world, was optimistic after shooting 68-71 on the weekend at Torrey Pines. "I'm a week behind on my game just because I haven't been able to practice," he said, "but as the week wore on I started to play better, I started to feel better, and those two rounds under par on the weekend give me a little bit of momentum heading into Phoenix."

He'll need it. Mickelson missed the cut at the 2007 FBR Open and, aside from going out in 30 on Saturday at the Buick, he showed little spark in his hometown of San Diego.

Vijay Singh also looked ordinary. After failing to record a top-10 finish in his first two starts of the year, he shot 73-68-74-72 at Torrey, 18 shots back of Woods.

The latest jaw-dropping example of Tiger's virtuoso shot-making came early Sunday, on the terrifying par-3 third, when he smoked a 198-yard 4-iron with just enough hook spin to hold its line in a two-club wind and stay where it landed, 20 feet behind the pin.

It was the scariest shot on the course, with anything left and/or long of the green flying over a cliff, and a left pin. Even Woods was impressed, he said later.

"He can hit an 8-iron 87 yards if he wants to; he can hit an 8-iron 200 yards if he wants to," O'Meara said. "The shot-making ability, his technique is really good."

O'Meara continued: "Tiger is a master at processing information. He's very smart. He can take in what is good for Tiger. Maybe there's only 10% that's going to make him better, he'll throw the other 90% out the window. That's what makes him such a tremendous athlete."

Els once seemed a worthy rival, but he hasn't been the same since contending in all four majors and winning none of them in 2004. He wrenched his left knee in the off-season that year and seems to understand that time is running out on his career.

"I am now 38 years old and I need to push myself," he said Monday at a press conference in Dubai.

Problem is, he's not the only one pushing. In his victory press conference Sunday, Woods addressed "holes" in his game, mostly his driving. He hit fewer than half of the fairways at Torrey, but he was at or near his best in most every other facet of the game.

"Making one bogey in the first two days is pretty solid," said George McNeill, a journeyman pro who played with Woods and Jim Furyk on Thursday and Friday. "And the one bogey he made was kind of a fluke because he hit a chip that got screwed by the poa annua. He hit his 3-wood fine off the tee, but his driver was a little erratic, as it always is. It's not a big surprise. His iron play was phenomenal and his putting was very, very good."

Who's going to stop him from copping his 34th Euro tour victory in Dubai? Henrik Stenson? Lee Westwood? Niclas Fasth? It seems unlikely.

Certainly no one in Phoenix can touch him. We've seen what happens when Woods goes head-to-head with Aaron Baddeley, the defending FBR Open champion, or Rory Sabbatini, who is looking to continue his good play after a final-round 67 that put him in a tie for third at the Buick.

In particular, McNeill cited Woods's astonishing distance control with his irons, a rave you might have heard before. But his short game was on, too, which was by design. Unimpressed with his chipping and putting at the end of 2007, Woods went to work on that aspect of his game in the off-season.

The results: Buick-sponsored Woods chipped in twice, led the field in putting and won his eighth Buick-sponsored event on Tour, and thus his eighth Buick car. Perhaps he'll open a dealership.

Palmer didn't get his 62nd win until he was 43, but Woods is still just 32, just getting into his career, he said. That has to be an upsetting thought for his peers, even the ones who have pushed him in the past. He was asked if he'd considered what the rest of the field might be thinking right now.

"I've been playing well," he said. "They can look at it however they want to look at it. I know that I'm trying to win and trying to improve."

Tiger Woods? Improving?

In a new movie called "Be Kind Rewind," a character accidentally erases all the movies in a video store and then frantically re-enacts them. The gulf between the remakes and the originals is so vast that it becomes the film's laugh line. So it is on Tour. There's Woods (the Show), and everyone else (the No Go). As it was in 2000, the disparity is a joke.

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