Tiger Woodsarrived at last week's Buick Invitational nearly four months removed from hislast PGA Tour start, the 2006 American Express Championship, at which heprevailed, running his winning streak to six consecutive Tour events. Duringhis so-called off-season Woods finished second at a pair of tournaments inAsia, announced that his wife was pregnant, birthed a course-design business,jetted to Dubai to cut the ribbon on his first project, embarked on awhistle-stop tour across the western U.S. to promote Nike's new driver, wentskiing in Colorado and celebrated his 31st birthday. But the more thingschange, the more Tiger stays the same.
As those in frontof him at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., bowed to the inevitable, Woods wonhis season debut to stretch his streak to seven straight.
Woods'sperformance at the Buick was not as dominant as the eight-stroke victory at theAmEx, as emotional as his win at last year's British Open or as suspenseful asthe overtime thriller at the Bridgestone Invitational last August, but withWoods only the details and the datelines change, not the result. Woods'swinning streak is now second alltime to Byron Nelson's legendary run of 11 in arow in 1945. Certain purists (and killjoys) have taken to disparaging thestreak because Woods has not won every tournament he has entered since the rollbegan last July; the runner-up finishes in Asia were preceded by a loss toShaun Micheel in the first round of September's World Match Play Championship,a European tour event held outside London two weeks before the AmEx. "Youhave to clarify it," says Woods. "It's not a worldwide streak. It's aPGA Tour streak." Woods's colleagues are unmoved by any technicalities.
"I don't think[not winning overseas] diminishes the streak whatsoever," Charles Howellsaid on Sunday evening after finishing in second place at the Buick, twostrokes back of Woods, his final-round playing partner. "To win seven in arow.... I'd cut my arm off to win a damn 'nother one."
Howell, 27, nowhas 10 career runner-up finishes against one victory. Woods's astonishingnumbers: 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 ofrounds together at Orlando's Isleworth Country Club, where both are members,and Howell readily admits he has never beaten Woods. But, Howell says, heeagerly writes down every scrap of advice Woods offers, with a special emphasison distance control with the short irons. "You're talking about probablythe greatest player of all time, and I'm lucky he's my friend," hesays.
For his part,Woods treats Howell like a kid brother, referring to him affectionately asChucky. Yet when he was asked on Sunday if he had any regrets about denyingHowell a win that would have meant so much for his career, Woods seemedgenuinely miffed. "Why would I?" he said with some heat. "He has toearn it."
Howell knew betterthan to expect any mercy. "Tiger has left a lot of people heartbroken,"he said.
At the Buick, thatincluded a handful of spirited Nationwide grads who defined the tournamentuntil the back nine on Sunday. During the first round Brandt Snedeker, a26-year-old from Nashville who has talent and goofy charm in equal measure, seta blistering pace in his first round as a PGA Tour member, shooting an 11-under61 on the easier North course at Torrey. He held on to a share of the leadheading into the final round, along with fellow rookie Andrew Buckle, a24-year-old Australian with a big-time résumé. Buckle has had four seconds onthe Asian and European tours, and last year, in his first pro tournament in theU.S., he blew away the field at the Nationwide Virginia Beach Open. Headinginto the Buick's final round, Woods was lurking two shots off the lead, and thekids knew it. Only a birdie on the 54th hole by Kevin Sutherland kept Woodsfrom playing in the final threesome on Sunday. "I need to send [Sutherland]a thank-you note," Snedeker said on Saturday evening. "That's very niceof him."
Woods opened thefinal round with birdies on the 2nd and 4th holes, which was the cue for thecompetition 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 byway of the Nationwide tour, Jeff Quinney, was going nuts, eagling the 6th holeand 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 wassimply setting the stage for another of his indelible moments. After a birdieon the 8th hole Woods eagled the par-5 9th with a gorgeous three-wood approachand a curling 26-foot putt, which he coaxed in with a little body English thatincluded a waist-high leg kick. "I felt like a Rockette," Woodssaid.
Howell could onlyshake his head at the inevitability of the eagle, which pushed Woods into a tiefor the lead. "You just knew that [putt] was going in," he saidafterward. "He hit way too good a three-wood in there, and we laughed aboutit the whole way up the fairway. He's getting old, but he can still fly thatthree-wood 280."
Woods took solepossession of the lead when Buckle and Quinney made ugly double bogeys withinminutes of each other early in Woods's back nine. Howell made a game of it bybirdieing six of 10 holes in the middle of the round to creep within one ofWoods's lead, but Tiger held him off with the help of a brilliant 65-foot lagputt on 14 to an inch for a birdie (Big Play, page G19), then ended anysuspense by stuffing his approach on 17 to take a two-shot cushion into thefinal hole.
After tidying uphis six-under 66--the low round of the week on Torrey's fearsome Southcourse--Woods enjoyed a hug-a-thon behind the final green. His mom, Tida, gotthe first squeeze, of course. Woods also had a hug for his wife, Elin, who hada little bump barely visible under her long black sweater. Poignantly, Woodsalso received a hearty embrace from his father-in-law, Thomas Nordegren. WhenWoods won the Buick last year, his father, Earl, was 90 miles up I-5, at homein Cypress in the final months of his battle with cancer. The loss of Pops, inMay, defined Woods's season as much as the winning streak that followed.
Comparing thestate of his game with that of this time last year, Woods says, "It's a lotbetter. I've refined my misses. I have a better understanding of how to playthe game. Off the course things have turned around 180 degrees. Last year Ididn't want to practice because I knew my dad didn't have that long to live. Ididn't want to be out there, I wanted to be home with him. Now I'm able topractice harder and prepare better."
That's bad newsfor the Charles Howells of the world but good news for streak loverseverywhere.
• Read more aboutthe Buick Invitational at SI.com/golf.
Comparing his state of mind with this time last year,Woods says, "Off the course THINGS HAVE TURNED AROUND 180 DEGREES."
Photographs by Robert Beck
SOME FRIEND! Woods had no qualms about driving a stake through the heart of his win-challenged pal Howell (inset).
Photographs by Robert Beck
ROOKIE OF THE WEEK Snedeker opened with a 61 and hung on until Sunday.