The US Tour needed an exciting start to the 2005 season to whet the appetite of a flagging-viewing public. Appleby and Singh produced some great golf in the Hawaiian Islands but they did little to supply headlines. What the Tour needed was a homegrown winner triumphing on the last green over a 'good ol' boy' struggling against the odds as well as his nerves.
The Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines in Southern California provided just what the Tour needed in its first tournament of the season on mainland America. The setting could not have been better with photogenic opportunities of surf n' sand, with the drama of fog rolling in from the Pacific Ocean to provide the necessary ingredient of angst. Tiger Woods complied by winning and Tom Lehman played his part by failing on the last green, a jangle of nerves. It was all pure theatre with Luke Donald and Charles Howell providing supporting role performances as champions-in-waiting.
Lehman opened his account on the first day with a 10-under par 62. His appointment as US Ryder Cup captain for the 2006 meeting in Ireland has clearly provided a fillip for he has not won a Tour event since 2000. It has also stimulated his ambition for, when he retained a place at the top of the leaderboard after the second round, he announced that he would like to play his way into the team and lead by example. A laudable ambition, perhaps, but as the pressure mounted in the last round the twitches and head jerks that have long been his trademark went into overdrive, showing his struggles with stress.
Pressure is not something that Tiger Woods succumbs to easily - indeed he thrives on it. The putting stroke that deserted him in Hawaii was back at its silky best, saving him time and again from the outcome of otherwise mediocre play. Woods showed his frustration with his long game through 63 holes of golf but over the last nine, when it counted, he played with a calm assurance that could have passed for indifference. While Lehman was reduced to a continuous frantic twitch in the head-to-head that developed with Woods over the closing holes, the Tiger's cool was scarily icy.
Luke Donald clearly likes Torrey Pines. It is a tough golf course that suits his game, which is rarely off the straight and narrow - as he demonstrated with rounds of 67, 68, and 67. He earned a play-off place against John Daly here last year and his collegiate record here is unparalleled. Lehman, another who rarely misses a fairway, earned his opportunity with an opening 62 but could match this only with a 71 and 72. Donald looked to be in the driving seat and one suspects that the outcome might have been different had this event been concluded in the normal way.
Fog stopped play leaving the third round unfinished. To avoid Monday play, the three-ball games that went out to finish the third round simply played on through the fourth round. Donald and Lehman were tied at 14 under par after the third round but Donald played in the game in front of Woods and Lehman for the final 18 holes. Ominously, Woods was one shot behind them when they started the last round and, threateningly, Howell and Langer were a further shot back. Els was in striking range at four shots off the lead and Singh was out of it.
Luke Donald had taken a one-stroke lead when fog suspended play for 30 minutes. He enjoyed another birdie to go to 16 under but Lehman had two on the trot for a share of the lead soon after play resumed. Lehman, however, dropped two shots at 11 and 12 before he and Woods birdied 13. Donald was still a shot ahead of the pair when he came over his second shot and pulled it passed the 15th green. The unplayable ball cost him a double bogey at the worst possible time. The stalking Tiger merely waited for Lehman to slip, which he duly did when he failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker at 17. Woods missed a birdie opportunity at 17 but he nevertheless took a one shot lead onto the 18th tee. With characteristic aplomb, Woods hit a long drive down the 18th before playing a poor second that luckily missed the pond in front of the green and came to rest on the narrow walkway past it. Meanwhile, Lehman's third shot stuck on the pond's edge below the flag. Woods, needless to say, ended in style with a long tricky birdie putt while Lehman took three costly shots to get down and into a tie with Howell and Donald in joint second place.
This win should not be taken as a signal of Woods' return to dominance for his play was far from spectacular. Howell and Donald have posted their intent for the season ahead and Lehman has shown that all is not lost from his game. Lehman may, however, require a pharmacologist as well as a cardiologist in his retinue in Dublin next year when the pressure may be on an altogether different scale and more than his neck jerks and twitches can cope with. One can be quite certain that if, as expected, Ian Woosnam were appointed captain of the European team, the pressure on Lehman would be such that he may require a neurologist as well.
|| 24 - JANUARY 2005