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Roaring Back Returning from knee surgery, Tiger Woods proved he was sound by dominating the Buick Invitational

The worst of it was neither the yearlong bouts of sleeplessness
due to searing pain nor the arthroscopic surgery he'd undergone
on Dec. 12, a risky invasion of golf's most precious left knee
that kept him from competitive play for the longest stretch
since he'd learned to spell. Nor was it kicking around his
Windermere, Fla., home, wistfully eyeing videotapes of himself
doing things with clubs that he now couldn't do, or watching
his fellow pros gorging themselves on fat purses while he was
stretching and lifting and playing the occasional video game.

No, the pain and inactivity and boredom were nothing compared to
the doubt they'd fostered in Tiger Woods. So last Thursday at the
Buick Invitational, when Woods awkwardly pivoted on his left leg
as he sent the first drive of his long-awaited return to the PGA
Tour screaming into the right rough at San Diego's Torrey Pines
Golf Course, he was overcome by a feeling he seldom experiences
on a golf course: simple, joyous surprise. "[During the swing] I
saw my spike slip in the ground," he said, "but there was no
pain. Last year that shot would've been unbelievably painful,
even with painkillers. I knew then what I'd done was right."

By Saturday afternoon so did everyone else. After a nine-hole,
fog-shortened struggle on Thursday, Woods took the lead on
Saturday and won going away, shooting a four-under-par 68 on
Sunday to finish at 16-under 272, good for an $810,000 check and
his 27th Tour victory in 29 attempts when holding at least a
share of the 54-hole lead. His comeback was a stunning
achievement, one that showcased Woods's flair for the spectacular
as well as his underrated ability to grind.

The week had started with Phil Mickelson's bombshell quote in
Golf Magazine, in which he dogged Woods's Nike clubs and boasted
that he was longer than Tiger off the tee. When an 18th-hole
birdie on Saturday vaulted Mickelson into Sunday's final group
with Woods and Brad Faxon, that round morphed into a nasty clash
between two of the world's top three players.

Those 18 holes, played before immense galleries, were charged
with major-championship electricity. Little surprise, then, that
Woods was as focused and brilliant as ever, extending his
one-stroke lead with three birdies in the first six holes, or
that Mickelson failed to capitalize on several early birdie
opportunities and, staring into the maw of a charging Tiger, saw
his own game fail him yet again.

As he gamely worked his hometown crowd after a 72 left him in a
tie for fourth, six shots behind Woods, Mickelson sounded an
all-too-familiar refrain. "I tried to be patient, and a couple of
things happened, and it didn't quite click," he said. "What
impresses me the most [about Woods] is that it isn't easy to step
in and out of competition. I like to play a couple of tournaments
and work my way into a competitive mind-set. He's able to walk in
and out of it at will."

Mickelson would do well to keep any further critiques of Tiger to
himself. Part of Woods's genius lies in finding a challenge where
none exists. Mickelson's ill-advised remarks--"Tiger hates that I
can fly it past him now. He has a faster swing speed than I do,
but he has inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player good
enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with"--were just the
kick Woods needed. "Tiger was gracious about it, but I think he
used it as fuel," said Faxon, who finished third, five shots
behind Woods. "As if he needed any more fuel."

Though Woods and Mickelson downplayed the controversy, the quote
had clearly irked Woods. During his only practice round, played
in a steady rain early on Tuesday, Woods crushed a drive, then
said to a small group of fans, "Pretty good for inferior
equipment, eh?" That was one of many shots Woods took at his
wouldn't-be rival. (Their relationship can best be described as
professional.) Woods dismissed Mickelson's comments as "foolish"
and an example of "Phil being Phil--kind of a smart aleck. He
tried to be funny, and it didn't work."

On Sunday, Mickelson outdrove Woods on four of the five holes on
which both players hit the fairway and for the week averaged
299.1 yards off the tee to Tiger's 298.0, but it mattered not.
Woods favored accuracy over distance on Sunday, when gusts off
the Pacific made big drives dangerous. Woods hit nine fairways to
Mickelson's six, and 14 greens in regulation to Mickelson's 12.
While Woods performed a surgical up-and-down from a bunker for
birdie on the 6th, Mickelson knocked his bunker shot past the
hole and off the green; even he had to laugh when one of Woods's
supporters bellowed, "Hey, Phil! Must be the shoes!"

Woods's final round was stocked with memorable moments, including
his 227-yard four-iron into a murderous head wind to within three
feet on the par-3 11th and his 200-yard four-iron on the par-4
15th from deep rough, which he ripped low through two trees and
then over a bunker fronting the green to within 15 feet, setting
up his final birdie. But make no mistake: Woods became a two-time
Buick winner only because of his erratic yet dogged opening 70, a
two-under adventure over two days that proved to Woods that he
was ready to compete, even as he battled a balky driver. Good
fortune, too, played a part. For his first round, he drew the
shorter, more forgiving North course, which had been softened by
two days of rain that dampened his inaccuracy off the tee. (He
hit only two fairways through his first 18 holes.) During his
convalescence Woods hadn't worked much with his driver, so he had
to adjust on the fly, fixing a flaw that would've doomed him on
the South course. "I was very lucky to start on the North," he
said on Sunday. "If I hadn't, I would've easily shot a 76 or 77."

Particularly impressive were his first nine holes, played before
an unobtrusive gallery of roughly 250 through a fog that delayed
the start of play for more than three hours. Woods constantly
worked out of trouble, showing command of his irons and
putter--the parts of his game he had fine-tuned during a stopover
in Las Vegas the week before to work with swing coach Butch
Harmon. "His swing looked really good," Harmon said. "He was in
really good spirits, and looking forward to getting back out

As Woods ground out par save after par save on Thursday, he poked
fun at himself and his caddie, Steve Williams. Play was suspended
shortly after his errant drive on the 10th, and Tiger was running
through a sudden cloudburst to the clubhouse when he was asked if
he was happy to be back. Stopping briefly in the torrent, he
flashed a sly grin and said, "Oh, definitely. Especially on a
beautiful, sunny day like today."

That was a glimpse of a kinder, gentler, early-season Tiger:
relaxed and upbeat after the first significant downtime since he
turned pro in August 1996. In years past Woods's breakneck
schedule in November and December left little in his tank for the
Tour's West Coast swing. His knee surgery forced him to shut down
and allowed him to rejigger his schedule so that he can peak for
a defense of his Masters titles at Augusta, where he will attempt
to win for an unprecedented third straight time.

The resounding Buick win may mute the nagging questions regarding
Tiger's left knee, but the fact remains that he has had two
arthroscopic surgeries on it--the first, in 1994, was to remove a
benign tumor--and that the second one, to treat Woods's synovitis
(the medical term for the cysts imbedded in the knee fibers,
including the ACL), only drained the cysts and removed fluid from
the joint. According to Dr. James Lubowitz, founding director of
the Taos (N.Mex.) Orthopedic Institute and a U.S. Ski Team
physician, "It is likely that fluid will return if the mechanical
cause of irritation persists," and "even a small amount [of
fluid] will affect an elite athlete." In Woods's case the
"mechanical cause" is the golf swing, which he has been repeating
almost daily since preschool. Since he has yet to face any
prolonged challenge from another player, it seems that only the
hazy specter of a chronic knee ailment clouds his otherwise sunny

Or perhaps that challenge may come still. Hours before Woods took
the Buick by the throat on Sunday, Ernie Els of South Africa was
doing the same at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, Australia,
where he won his fourth tournament in five starts this year while
setting the European tour record with a 29-under 259. (That
followed his PGA Tour--record 31 under at the season-opening
Mercedes Championships.) The victory in Perth strengthened Els's
hold on the world No. 2 ranking, which for so long belonged to
Mickelson. When asked about Els, Woods marveled not at the Big
Easy's great length but at his touch on the greens. "You can hit
it 400 yards, but you've still got to make putts," Woods said.
"That's what you have to do in order to win, and he's burying
every one of them."

Mickelson might as well have taken that as his cue to exit stage
left. The man with a restored knee and the old competitive fire
has a new mark to shoot. So Tiger has turned his lonely eyes to
you, Ernie. And for that, you have our sympathy.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK TIGER'S PAUSE Woods, who sat out the Tour's first five events, was missed.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK BRIGHTER DAY After a rainy and erratic opening round, the sun was shining on Woods by Saturday.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH ROUGH PATCH While Woods birdied three of the first six holes on Sunday, Mickelson faded into the woodwork.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH CRUELEST CUT Mickelson has failed repeatedly to meet a challenge by Woods, so the burden now falls to Els.

"Tiger was nice about [Phil's quote], but HE USED IT AS FUEL. As
if he needed any more fuel."