SAN DIEGO (AP) — Tiger Woods joined some elite company Sunday, even though he might as well have been playing alone.
He thrilled the four-deep gallery with an improbable flop shot from the muck of trampled grass behind the ninth green to save par. He sent Torrey Pines into delirium with a 60-foot birdie putt that started in one direction and slid into the cup from the other. He made three straight bogeys on the back nine, a rarity for him when he’s in the lead.
And none of it mattered.
The outcome was never in doubt at the Buick Invitational, only the final score.
A 10-foot birdie on the 18th gave Woods a 1-under 71 and an eight-shot victory, the ninth time in his career that he has won by at least that many. It earned him a fourth straight title at Torrey Pines, a third straight PGA Tour victory and congratulations from the King.
It was his 62nd career victory, tying him with Arnold Palmer for fourth place on the tour list.
“I’m sure that there are many, many more coming in the future,” Palmer said. “There isn’t any question about that.”
He won’t get an argument from Woods. Having won for the fifth time in his last six starts on the PGA Tour, Woods said he was at another level – even better than 2000 – and still had room for improvement.
Better than 2000, when he won nine times and three straight majors?
“Yeah,” Woods said without hesitation.
Woods finished at 19-under 269 to win the Buick Invitational for the fourth consecutive year, tying a PGA Tour record for consecutive wins in a single tournament. Woods is the only player to own such a streak at two events, having also won four in a row at Bay Hill.
He won for the fifth time in his last six starts. Throw in his Target World Challenge at the end of the year, and Woods has won his last three tournaments by a combined 23 shots.
“I’m starting to get better,” he said. “I’m hitting shots that I never could hit before, even in 2000. People think, ‘Yeah, you played great.’ But I made everything. I’m actually hitting the ball better now than I did during that stretch.”
Ryuji Imada won the B-flight. He matched the best score of the final round with a 67 and was the runner-up.
“My goal going into today was to finish second,” Imada said. “That’s almost like winning the golf tournament to me.”
Woods returns to Torrey Pines in June for the U.S. Open, and if this week was any indication, it could be another long week for his peers. The world’s No. 1 player now has won six times as a pro at Torrey Pines, and his comment earlier this month that the Grand Slam is “easily within reason” looked every bit of that.
“What he’s going to do is screw the U.S. Open up for everyone else,” Fred Couples said. “If he had shot 10 or 11 under, the USGA would have said, ‘Well, maybe we have it in the right spot.’ Now, they may have to regroup a little.”
Then again, it might not matter.
The 71 ended Woods’ streak of 14 consecutive rounds in the 60s, dating to the second round of the Deutsche Bank Championship. He has finished no worse than second since the British Open in July, when he tied for 12th at Carnoustie.
Woods planned to leave Sunday night for the Dubai Desert Classic, and he likely won’t return to the PGA Tour until the end of February at the Accenture Match Play Championship. Next in line on the career list is Ben Hogan with 64 victories, and each win moves Woods closer to the record 82 won by Sam Snead.
“You’d like to think it’s surprising, but it’s not,” Charles Howell III said. “It’s Tiger.”
Woods is 6-of-12 in his PGA Tour debuts, but he has never won with such ease. He went back to work after the holidays, and it was as if last year never ended.
It was a powerful message to the rest of the PGA Tour, even if it was unintentional.
“They can look at it however they want to look at it,” Woods said. “I know that I’m trying to win and trying to improve and trying to get better.”
The only surprise was the weather, a pleasant one at that.
The forecast was for heavy rain overnight and into Sunday, with the possibility of a Monday finish. But the clouds cleared as Woods was warming up, and he played the front nine under brilliant blue skies. Only on the back nine did clouds return and temperatures plunge. He closed out his victory under a mixture of rain and clouds, and smile that showed all was right in his world.
“He’s just much better,” said Couples, who posted his first top-10 finish since the 2006 Masters. “It’s fun to see. I’ve been on tour for 28 years, and I’ve never seen this stuff.”
Rory Sabbatini also had a 67 to tie for third with Stewark Cink (73).
“I’d say this is the best I’ve seen him play,” Cink said. “The last couple days, off the tee, the control he had was just really very impressive. The Tiger that we saw a year and two years ago, hitting it sort of all over the place, I think that’s a thing of the past. He’s got it geared down and he came out and played really well.”
Justin Leonard closed with a 72 to finish alone in fifth, 12 shots behind. Phil Mickelson also made his 2008 debut this week, but was slowed by illness and was never a factor. He shot 71 on Sunday and tied for sixth with Durant (75).
“Nobody thought too much about winning,” Mickelson said.
Divots: Woods won in California for the 12th time, the most of any state. Florida is second with 10 victories. … Kevin Streelman, who played in the final group Saturday as the final alternate to get in the Buick Invitational, went 75-77 on the weekend and tied for 29th. … Only seven players broke par in the final round. … Woods has won six times each at the Buick Invitational, Bridgestone Invitational and the CA Championship, the latter two World Golf Championships events.