Woods an army of one at Torrey Pines

Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA -- If this really was a preview of the U.S. Open, then Tiger Woods posted an important bulletin at Torrey Pines, one that contained a simple but emphatic message: Watch Out.

After winning the Buick Invitational for the sixth time, Woods said he's playing better than ever, and not only that, he's still improving. There may be no more unsettling words to fill the ears of PGA Tour pros.

"I'm hitting shots that I never hit before, even in 2000," Woods said. "I'm actually hitting the ball better now than I did during that stretch."

Of course, Tiger's 2000 was one of the greatest years in golf. He won nine times, including the U.S. Open by 15 shots, the British Open by eight and the PGA Championship in a playoff.

So it actually was a statement day for Woods in the fourth round on the renowned and rugged South Course, where the U.S. Open will be staged in June and is certain to be a tournament much more difficult than the one Woods closed out Sunday.

His lead was so large, Woods didn't need to do much except just close it out, which he did with a routine one-under-par 71 and 19-under total of 269.

All the numbers once again lined up in Woods' favor. He still won by eight shots, made it four straight victories at the Buick, earned $936,000 and tied Arnold Palmer for fourth place on the PGA Tour's career victory list at 62.

Palmer spent the day playing golf at his club at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla., and issued a statement about Woods' feat.

"I'm sure there are many, many more coming in the future," Palmer said. "There isn't any question about that."

Palmer was 43 when he reached 62 victories; Woods turned 32 a month ago.

The only question Sunday was who would finish second. Ryuji Imada answered it when he shot a 67 and came closest to Woods. Rory Sabbatini (67) and Stewart Cink (73) tied for third at nine-under 279, and Justin Leonard, last week's runner-up at the Hope, was fifth at 281 after a 72.

Imada said finishing second wasn't all that much fun but managed to smile about it.

"This is the Tiger Woods Invitational, isn't it?"

Cink couldn't help but be impressed by Woods.

"I'd say this is the best I've seen him play. The last couple days, off the tee, the control he had was just really very impressive. The Tiger that we saw a year or two ago, hitting it all over the place, I think that's a thing of the past."

Phil Mickelson's season debut ended with a 71 and a tie for sixth with Joe Durant at 282.

There could be a debate over just when the tournament really ended, whether it was Saturday afternoon when Woods led by eight shots, or after the first hole Sunday when his lead had grown to 10.

But the precise door-slamming moment was probably the curling, 60-foot birdie putt by Woods at No. 11. It traveled nearly the length of the green, took a left turn at the slope off the bunker, rolled another 15 feet and then disappeared.

The gallery cheered and Woods responded with a shout and a fist pump.

Three straight bogeys, from the 14th through the 16th, ate into Woods' lead, but all that did was make it look a little closer than it actually was.

Nineteen under? On a 7,569-yard beefcake that's hosting the Open in five months?

"It's kind of a scary score," Fred Couples said.

Couples' 72 moved him into a tie for eighth, and he said the USGA is sure to take notice of how Woods manhandled the course.

"What he's going to do is screw up the U.S. Open for everybody," Couples said.

Woods should have stuck to about 10 or 11 under, Couples said, and convinced the USGA it had the course set up right.

"They may have to regroup a little. He's just that much better."

Woods said his influence over the USGA is probably going to be limited to the 18th green because of what happened Saturday, when his second shot got caught up in the fringe and didn't roll back into the pond.

"After what the USGA witnessed on 18 yesterday, that ball staying up, that will be shaved," he said.

He began his round Sunday with a 40-foot birdie putt at the first, and even when Woods was in trouble early, he really wasn't. For instance, when he missed the fairway and the green at the par-five ninth, he stood over a difficult 66-foot chip from the back of the green and knocked it to within a foot and a half to save par.

Once again, Woods lived up to his reputation as one of the greatest front-runners in history. He's 12 for 22 when holding at least a share of the first-round lead, 30 for 36 when tied for or in the lead after two rounds and now 42 for 45 when tied or leading after 54 holes.

Woods set scoring records in his last two official events of 2007, the BMW Championship at 22-under 262 and the Tour Championship at 23-under 257, and even though he didn't set another one Sunday, he already owns a share of the tournament record at 22 under.

Woods' eight-shot lead after 54 holes broke the Buick record by three shots, and his eight-shot margin of victory broke a 29-year-old tournament record by three shots.

For some reason, Woods has managed a seamless transition from the tail end of last year to the beginning of this one. Starting with his victory at the Bridgestone Invitational in the first week of August, spanning six official events, Woods' scoring average is 66.75.

Included in that stretch is the 63 he shot in the second round of the PGA Championship -- equaling the lowest round in the history of major-championship golf.

Of course, Woods went on to win that PGA Championship at Southern Hills, his 13th major title.

Counting the Tour Championship, the Target World Challenge and the Buick, Woods has won his last three events by a total of 23 shots.

With the U.S. Open coming to the South Course at Torrey Pines, it would be fair to say that Woods may have an advantage on the rest of the field in June. No, it won't be exactly the same course; the USGA will make it tougher.

But Woods won't be exactly the same player, either; he's probably going to be better.

"As a player, it's fun to watch," Couples said. "I've been out here 25 years, and I've never seen this."

The last year there was a PGA Tour event and a U.S. Open staged at the same venue was in 2000 at Pebble Beach, and Woods won them both.

"Who's to say it's not going to happen again," Couples said.

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thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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Fast company

All-time victory leaders on the PGA Tour and how many each man had in his first 12 seasons:

*--* GOLFER WINS 1ST 12 Sam Snead 82 42 Jack Nicklaus 73 52 Ben Hogan 64 34 Arnold Palmer 62 45 Tiger Woods 62 61 *--*

Source: pgatour.com

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