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Woods wins fourth straight Buick Invitational to tie Palmer with 62 career wins

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

"I knew that I could attain another level," Woods said, "and here we are."

LA JOLLA, Calif. — It was over before it began, so much so that even Tiger Woods seemed to let his mind drift.

Woods ambled onto the practice green Sunday morning with an eight-stroke lead and 18 holes to play in the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines. Attired in his customary red and black, he stroked a few putts, ducked into the locker room, came back out and hit a few more putts across the entire length of the green.

"Isn't it 10:30 yet?" he asked one of the caddies (not his own).

"Uh, we're off at 10:40," the caddie replied.

Woods smiled, and sidled up to his caddie, Steve Williams.

"I thought we were at 10:30," Woods said, laughing. "Can I not remember anything anymore?"

Let the record show that on the day that Woods tied Arnold Palmer with his 62nd career victory — they trail only Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead — the world's No. 1 player, still just 32, had a senior moment of his own.

Woods hardly seemed rattled. After being incorrectly introduced as a "three-time champion" (he'd won the Buick five times, including the last three), Woods blasted a perfect drive down the first fairway, hit the center of the green with his approach and rolled in a 38-foot birdie putt.

When Stewart Cink bogeyed, having failed to clear the lip of a fairway bunker, the group's scoring standard (19-9-8) brought to mind not so much a golf tournament as a lopsided game of blackjack.

"I'd say this is the best I've seen him play," Cink said.

Woods shot one-under 71 to finish 19 under, eight shots ahead of Ryuji Imada, whose 67 tied Rory Sabbatini for best round of the day and netted him second place. Cink (73) and Sabbatini tied for third at nine under, 10 strokes back. Woods's fourth straight Buick title tied a Tour record for consecutive wins, a feat he has also accomplished at Bay Hill.

Although Woods and others said the USGA's setup at this year's U.S. Open will in no way resemble this week's PGA Tour setup (Open courses are much firmer and have longer rough), it all suggested a less than competitive week when that major comes to Torrey Pines in June.

"I knew that I could attain another level," said Woods, who has won five of his last six starts on Tour, going back to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last summer. "And here we are."

Woods was asked if he was playing the best golf of his career. "Yes," he said. Even better than 2000, when he won nine times, including three majors? "Yes," he said.

"He's making history, end of story," Jason Gore said as he cleaned out his locker. "The guy's the chosen one."

Kevin Stadler added: "Anymore, you just know you're not going to beat him. I shot 72 (Sunday) and I think that's pretty good on the South Course, and he's getting it around in 66 (Saturday) and 67 (Thursday). He's not human."

Cink, who played with Woods all weekend, spoke of the world No. 1's impressive control off the tee, but the stats said Woods hit just 27 of 56 fairways for the week, 59th best in the field. (He was also tied for second in greens in regulation and first in putting.) In fact Woods was narrowly missing fairways, and his score was none the worse for it, the only glimmer of hope for his fellow competitors. No one misses fairways without a stiff penalty in a U.S. Open.

Woods served notice that '08 might be a huge year with a seven-stroke victory at his (unofficial) Target World Challenge last month, his first start since an eight-stroke victory at the Tour Championship. His mind was on golf and only golf, which wasn't always the case in 2006 and '07, which saw the death of Woods's father, Earl, and the birth of his first child, daughter Sam Alexis.

"I haven't talked to him a lot lately," said Mark O'Meara, a friend of Tiger's, "but I know people in his inner circle who say he's more focused this year than he has been."

Having won the Buick three years running, Woods seemed a lock to do it again, as long as the weather cooperated. Experts were predicting a 90% chance of precipitation for the final round Sunday, but early clouds parted to reveal bright blue sky, and it seemed the same people who did the political polling in New Hampshire were now doing Southern California meteorology. The only major obstacle was gusty winds, and Woods tamed even those.

The 198-yard, par-3 third hole, with its elevated tee and a green that sits on the edge of a cliff, played into the teeth of a two-club wind. It was the site of so much calamity that Woods's group waited on the tee for 20 minutes, during which time they watched Aaron Baddeley, in the group ahead, hit a weak fade that got blown to CBS's TV tower.

Joe Durant led off Woods's group and hit a low riser that started at the pin but hit the headwind and spun back and to the right after hitting the green, ending up 40 feet away. Everyone agreed it was a good shot. Woods went next and hit a laser-straight 4-iron with little backspin but just enough hook spin to hold its line in the wind. It landed 20 feet, 5 inches behind the hole and stayed put. Everyone agreed it was a great shot.

It was Woods at his best, one of his two best shots on the day, he would say later. He'd aimed at one cameraman and tried to draw the ball at another one, "and I flushed it." He missed his birdie putt, but the lesson, as usual, was as stark as the score: He was playing a different game.

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