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Woods dominating but fizzles at finish

Tiger Woods in the final round of the 2013 Farmers Insurance Open
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SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods limped home yet again to win another championship at Torrey Pines.

This wobbly march through the home stretch at the Farmers Insurance Open Monday wasn’t awe-inspiring like that win at the U.S. Open here five years ago, but it was nearly as head-scratching.

When Woods won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, he made us scratch our heads at how he could hit so many brilliant shots on a left leg ravaged by a torn ligament and fractured tibia.

He brought home this latest title, his eighth at Torrey Pines, limping home figuratively, with a sprained swing and hemorrhaging scorecard.

This time we marveled at how the greatest closer in the history of the game could look so invincible for 54 holes and so vulnerable for the final 18.

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We marveled at how the Tiger Woods of old came back to us through the first three rounds, how he emerged from the ethereal mist that shrouded this place with a game that made us think he could dominate again, that he will dominate again. We marveled at how all that brilliance could give way so quickly to the same doubts that have given us pause since he returned from his personal woes.

Yeah, it’s not fair, not at all, that a four-shot victory comes with scrutiny like this, but that’s the nature of the shadow Woods casts; that’s the specter that comes with his remarkable record.

Only Woods could win his 75th PGA Tour title by four shots and leave us thinking he didn’t somehow deliver all the goods.

That’s just crazy, but we see his career as a drama larger than any single moment. He’s our Odysseus, and we’re wondering if he’ll ever make it to Ithaca. We’re wondering where this great adventure ends because the task ahead still seems so great.

We see Woods in a picture frame larger than the PGA Tour events he is playing. So, when we see flashes of Woods’ brilliance returning, we think, yes, he will break Jack Nicklaus’ record. He will leave the sport with all the records, and then we see Monday’s stumbling finish and wonder if that’s the arc the bigger picture also takes. We remember his lost weekends after taking the lead at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship last year and failing to even grab a top 10.

There are so many ways you can look at Woods’ victory this week.

You can see the hard work paying off here in that terrific stretch where he hit one long, straight drive after another. You could see the power back with his ability to dominate par 5s. You could see the great escapes, the ability to recover from impossible lies that helped him erase so many mistakes in the past. You could see the sharpening short game that has helped him keep his scorecards so clean over the years. You could see the putting stroke continuing to come back.

You see all of that and think Woods is rebuilding the greatest arsenal of shots in the game. You see him being able to get away with mistakes again because he can erase so many of them.

You also see how his swing with his driver deserted him in the final round this past week, how the big misses returned in a rush, with tee shots spraying into trees, ice plants, bunkers and fences.

Woods built his reputation closing stronger, better and more fiercely than anyone who ever played the game, but he went bogey, double bogey, par, bogey and par coming home Sunday. He turned an eight-shot lead into a four-shot lead. Yes, there’s rust in his first PGA Tour start of the year, but this was Tiger at Torrey.

So what do you take away from his 75th PGA Tour title?

“That’s a good question,” said Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie. “I’m a bottom-line guy, and the fact that he won is all that matters to me. I take away how he drove the heck out of the ball. Going forward, that’s a positive. I think he’s very confident now.”

Woods dismissed the stumbling finish with the idea that he knew all he had to do was “stay upright” to win. The slow pace play annoyed him, and he said he lost his patience.

No matter how he finished, winning here bodes well.

In the six seasons Woods has won this event, he has gone on to win major championships in five of them.

When he wins at Torrey Pines, big years always follow. He averages 6.3 wins a year when he wins at Torrey Pines.

“I didn't know those stats, sorry,” Woods said. “Does it feel good? Yes. Does it give me confidence? Absolutely. But as far as the other stuff, as I said, I'm excited about this year.  I'm excited about what I'm doing with Sean Foley and some of the things that I've built.  This is a nice way to start the year.”

Yes, but ultimately, it’s the finish that matters and that’s what Woods is working toward, finishing his great quest.