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Tiger Woods wins despite not having best game

Ever since Tiger Woods had that moment on the practice range in November when his swing changes suddenly made perfect sense, his record has been nearly perfect.

First came a wire-to-wire victory at the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, although the margin of victory (eight shots) was far more familiar than the guy he beat (Ryoken Kawagishi).

A month later, he posted all four rounds in the 60s to win his Target World Challenge against a 16-man field. And two tournaments into the 2005 season, Woods rallied from a two-shot deficit over the final six holes to win the Buick Invitational for his first PGA Tour victory in 11 months.

``It's hard to believe it's been that long to win on our tour,'' Woods said.

If he had made even half of his putts inside 8 feet at Kapalua, where Woods finished two shots behind in a tie for third, he might be 2-for-2 in the new year and on the fast track to establishing anew his dominance in golf.

``At least a third-place finish and a first-place finish is a pretty good start,'' Woods said.

It put him atop the PGA Tour money list for the first time in 15 months, although that won't last.

Woods will skip the next three tournaments -- Bob Hope, Phoenix and Pebble Beach -- and sounded uncertain about returning to Riviera for the Nissan Open.

Otherwise, his next tournament would be the Match Play Championship, where he is the two-time defending champion. That will get him started on his road to the Masters, which likely will include a stop at Doral this year.

And that's where the progress of Woods and every other player is best measured.

Woods did a lot of things right on the South course at Torrey Pines, making a 10-foot par save on the 15th hole to remain tied with Tom Lehman, putting the pressure on him with a 7-iron from 170 yards into 6 feet on No. 17 and hitting the longest drive of the day on the par-5 18th.

But he made his share of mistakes with the tournament on the line.

And he got plenty of help.

Luke Donald went 37 holes without a bogey and was leading the tournament at 16 under par when he tried to hit a hard 6-iron into the 14th green, turned it over and flew into a hazard, making double bogey.

About that time, Charles Howell III appeared to have holed out a sand wedge on the 18th hole for eagle that would have put him at 16 under -- only to watch in disbelief as the ball caromed out of the cup and into the water, leading to a bogey that left him three shots behind.

Lehman was the final charity case. He hit every fairway on the back nine and kept Woods on his heels. But then came an 8-iron that caught a plugged lie in the bunker on No. 17 for a bogey to fall one shot behind. And needing a birdie on the 18th to have any chance, Lehman came up 10 yards short of his target with a wedge in hand.

``If I would have just hit a good 8-iron on the 17th hole, and then the last hole I just tried to drop a sand wedge on top of the flag,'' Lehman said. ``That's the only thing I regret this week -- a finish like that.''

Lehman remains winless in five years, and his record with at least a share of the 54-hole lead is one reason. He has failed to win the last seven times from that position, including four of his last five tournaments.

``I'm sick of strong showings,'' he said.

Because of the fog delays at Torrey Pines that almost led to a Monday finish, Lehman and Woods played the final 36 holes together.

Lehman noticed two things:

-- Woods didn't hit the ball very well.

-- Woods won.

``He definitely didn't play his best golf this week,'' Lehman said. ``He mis-hit a lot of shots. He just kind of proved what a great competitor he is with his phenomenal short game. He made all the putts he had to, and his chipping was great. But he won the tournament not playing his best.

``He whipped the field playing lousy. I give him a lot of credit.''

Woods moved a little closer to Vijay Singh at No. 1 in the world, a ranking that had been Woods' domain for five years until the 41-year-old Fijian took it away by playing better.

Singh shot a 75 on Sunday and finished out of the top 10 for the first time since he replaced Woods at No. 1 by beating him in the Deutsche Bank Championship on Labor Day.

He is not going away any time soon.

And while Ernie Els was the only one among the ``Big Three'' who didn't win the first month of the season, the Big Easy is on the right track by finishing in a tie for third, second, and a tie for sixth.

``It's tougher to win out here,'' Woods said. ``We have more guys playing well at the same time.''


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