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Woods has one thing better than top ranking - a win

SAN DIEGO - It had been a while since Tiger Woods stood on an 18th green on a Sunday afternoon, both arms raised in triumph.

Almost nine months to the day since his last victory, Woods rolled in a 15-foot eagle putt to beat scrappy Billy Ray Brown by two strokes in the Buick Invitational. Woods lifted both arms, then hugged Brown after the two battled for most of the final 18 holes.

The Buick field wasn't exactly overpowering, but Woods' golf was riveting, and one thing he said he'll remember from this one was that he shot 17-under over the weekend. On Friday, he needed birdies on his final two holes just to make the cut.

He went into Saturday's round nine back, but tamed Torrey Pines South with a course-record 62, which also happened to be his lowest round as a pro. He followed that with a 65 Sunday, finally beating Brown after the two went into No. 18 tied at 20-under-par.

Woods finished at 22-under 266, tying George Burns' 1987 tournament record for Torrey Pines.

``It was Tiger's tournament to lose,'' Brown said. ``All I could do was go free-wheel and he's the guy who had pressure on him. And you see how he responded to the pressure. An eagle on the last hole is just indicative of the kind of player he is.''

Woods said he didn't lose confidence in the 14-tournament span in which his best finishes were a pair of thirds. At the same time, David Duval was becoming golf's hottest player.

``Unfortunately for me, I haven't been winning as much as David has. I haven't been playing as well, either,'' Woods said. ``It's just a matter of time before everything comes around and some breaks start going my way. In order to win, you have to get lucky breaks, no doubt about it. And this week I got my share.''

The biggest was on the par-5 No. 6 on Saturday, when his difficult 3-wood shot from a knoll next to a bunker bounced off a sprinkler head and shot onto the green, setting up a 10-foot eagle putt.

``These are little things that, if it kicks the other way, hits soft or if it kicked right and ended up in the rough, I'd have made par, and that would have been a momentum killer right there.''

But Woods also was on with his short game and his putter. After his round Saturday, he said he feels more confident when he's playing badly. ``More importantly, my short game has improved where I don't mind missing the green as much.''

But he also said his goal was to hit 18 greens, ``no matter what. Whether it's 40 feet or 4 feet, it doesn't matter. I figured I could knock it down.''

He needed just 24 putts on Saturday, 28 on Sunday.

``I didn't hit a lot of great shots today, but I hit a lot of great putts,'' Woods said after the victory, noting that his one blunder was three-putting the par-3 11th. ``Basically, that was the story of the entire week. I didn't hit the ball as well as I like, but I drove it great the entire week. I made everything.''

The Buick win solidified Woods' No. 1 spot on the Official World Golf Ranking released Monday. The rankings were used to select the field for the $5 million Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship next week at La Costa.

Woods widened his gap over Duval, who skipped the Buick, and will face Nick Faldo in the first round of the Match Play Championship.

Woods, though, said the rankings aren't important.

``Winning golf tournaments is what's important. Winning golf tournaments, basically, keeps you No. 1 in the world. There's no substitute for winning, there's no doubt about that. I haven't won on the PGA Tour since May of last year, but to finally win again, that feels a lot better than any world ranking.''

Woods was in a comfort zone because he was back in his native Southern California. His homecoming tour resumes this weekend in the Nissan Open at Riviera before moving to La Costa, where Woods won a one-hole playoff over Tom Lehman in the rain-shortened 1997 Mercedes Championships.

The 23-year-old Woods said it's important to have family members and friends in the gallery.

``You don't get to see it every week as you travel all over the world. Most of the time you're alone, you and your caddy. But to have the people who are close to you out there supporting you the entire way, it means a lot.''

 

TRW