Tiger Woods arrived at last week’s Buick Invitational nearly four months removed from his last PGA Tour start, the 2006 American Express Championship, at which he prevailed, running his winning streak to six consecutive Tour events. During his so-called off-season Woods finished second at a pair of tournaments in Asia, announced that his wife was pregnant, birthed a course-design business, jetted to Dubai to cut the ribbon on his first project, embarked on a whistle-stop tour across the western U.S. to promote Nike’s new driver, went skiing in Colorado and celebrated his 31st birthday. But the more things change, the more Tiger stays the same.
As those in front of him at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., bowed to the inevitable, Woods won his season debut to stretch his streak to seven straight.
Woods’s performance at the Buick was not as dominant as the eight-stroke victory at the AmEx, as emotional as his win at last year’s British Open or as suspenseful as the overtime thriller at the Bridgestone Invitational last August, but with Woods only the details and the datelines change, not the result. Woods’s winning streak is now second alltime to Byron Nelson’s legendary run of 11 in a row in 1945. Certain purists (and killjoys) have taken to disparaging the streak because Woods has not won every tournament he has entered since the roll began last July; the runner-up finishes in Asia were preceded by a loss to Shaun Micheel in the first round of September’s World Match Play Championship, a European tour event held outside London two weeks before the AmEx. “You have to clarify it,” says Woods. “It’s not a worldwide streak. It’s a PGA Tour streak.” Woods’s colleagues are unmoved by any technicalities.
“I don’t think [not winning overseas] diminishes the streak whatsoever,” Charles Howell said on Sunday evening after finishing in second place at the Buick, two strokes back of Woods, his final-round playing partner. “To win seven in a row…. I’d cut my arm off to win a damn ‘nother one.”
Howell, 27, now has 10 career runner-up finishes against one victory. Woods’s astonishing numbers: 55 victories, 20 seconds. Howell and Woods are close friends, Presidents Cup playing partners who have vacationed together with their wives. Howell does not try to disguise his awe for Woods. They have played dozens of rounds together at Orlando’s Isleworth Country Club, where both are members, and Howell readily admits he has never beaten Woods. But, Howell says, he eagerly writes down every scrap of advice Woods offers, with a special emphasis on distance control with the short irons. “You’re talking about probably the greatest player of all time, and I’m lucky he’s my friend,” he says.
For his part, Woods treats Howell like a kid brother, referring to him affectionately as Chucky. Yet when he was asked on Sunday if he had any regrets about denying Howell a win that would have meant so much for his career, Woods seemed genuinely miffed. “Why would I?” he said with some heat. “He has to earn it.”
Howell knew better than to expect any mercy. “Tiger has left a lot of people heartbroken,” he said.
At the Buick, that included a handful of spirited Nationwide grads who defined the tournament until the back nine on Sunday. During the first round Brandt Snedeker, a 26-year-old from Nashville who has talent and goofy charm in equal measure, set a blistering pace in his first round as a PGA Tour member, shooting an 11-under 61 on the easier North course at Torrey. He held on to a share of the lead heading into the final round, along with fellow rookie Andrew Buckle, a 24-year-old Australian with a big-time resume. Buckle has had four seconds on the Asian and European tours, and last year, in his first pro tournament in the U.S., he blew away the field at the Nationwide Virginia Beach Open. Heading into the Buick’s final round, Woods was lurking two shots off the lead, and the kids knew it. Only a birdie on the 54th hole by Kevin Sutherland kept Woods from playing in the final threesome on Sunday. “I need to send [Sutherland] a thank-you note,” Snedeker said on Saturday evening. “That’s very nice of him.”
Woods opened the final round with birdies on the 2nd and 4th holes, which was the cue for the competition to pack up and go home, but the youngsters showed a little fight. Buckle responded by birdieing the 5th and 6th, and up ahead another rookie by way of the Nationwide tour, Jeff Quinney, was going nuts, eagling the 6th hole and birdieing 7 and 8. When Woods pushed a six-footer for par on the 7th hole, he skidded into a four-way tie for third, three back of Quinney and Buckle.
But Woods was simply setting the stage for another of his indelible moments. After a birdie on the 8th hole Woods eagled the par-5 9th with a gorgeous three-wood approach and a curling 26-foot putt, which he coaxed in with a little body English that included a waist-high leg kick. “I felt like a Rockette,” Woods said.
Howell could only shake his head at the inevitability of the eagle, which pushed Woods into a tie for the lead. “You just knew that [putt] was going in,” he said afterward. “He hit way too good a three-wood in there, and we laughed about it the whole way up the fairway. He’s getting old, but he can still fly that three-wood 280.”
Woods took sole possession of the lead when Buckle and Quinney made ugly double bogeys within minutes of each other early in Woods’s back nine. Howell made a game of it by birdieing six of 10 holes in the middle of the round to creep within one of Woods’s lead, but Tiger held him off with the help of a brilliant 65-foot lag putt on 14 to an inch for a birdie, then ended any suspense by stuffing his approach on 17 to take a two-shot cushion into the final hole.
After tidying up his six-under 66 — the low round of the week on Torrey’s fearsome South course — Woods enjoyed a hug-a-thon behind the final green. His mom, Tida, got the first squeeze, of course. Woods also had a hug for his wife, Elin, who had a little bump barely visible under her long black sweater. Poignantly, Woods also received a hearty embrace from his father-in-law, Thomas Nordegren. When Woods won the Buick last year, his father, Earl, was 90 miles up I-5, at home in Cypress in the final months of his battle with cancer. The loss of Pops, in May, defined Woods’s season as much as the winning streak that followed.
Comparing the state of his game with that of this time last year, Woods says, “It’s a lot better. I’ve refined my misses. I have a better understanding of how to play the game. Off the course things have turned around 180 degrees. Last year I didn’t want to practice because I knew my dad didn’t have that long to live. I didn’t want to be out there, I wanted to be home with him. Now I’m able to practice harder and prepare better.”
That’s bad news for the Charles Howells of the world but good news for streak lovers everywhere.
Senior writer Alan Shipnuck has covered golf for Sports Illustrated since 1994 and frequently contributes to SI.com.