Why Tiger Woods is better than ever

The New York Yankees trailed the Boston Red Sox by four games on Sept. 7, 1978, going into a four-game series in Fenway Park. After the Yankees won the first two games of the series in Boston's home park by scores of 15-3 and 13-2, cutting the Red Sox's lead in the American League East to two games, some wag wrote: "Never has a second-place team been so far in front." That's sort of the way it felt Sunday during the final round of the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines. Sure, Tiger Woods trailed Jeff Quinney and Andrew Buckle by 2 strokes with seven holes to play, but, really, was the outcome ever in doubt?

The sense of inevitability that hangs in the air when Tiger is in contention during the closing stretches of a tournament is so thick anyone in the hunt not named Woods begins to choke on it. With Quinney playing a hole in front of him and Buckle a hole behind, Tiger cruised through the last seven holes 2 under par to walk away with a 2-stroke victory that felt like a 10-stroke triumph. Neither Buckle nor Quinney managed even a top-three at the Buick, Buckle playing the last seven holes 5 over par to finish T-4 and Quinney playing them 3 over for a T-7.

In fact, the tournament ended with a glimpse into the psychological advantage Woods has over anyone currently playing the game. Charles Howell III, who finished second, had a 6-footer for birdie that would have made the 3-footer Woods had left seem a little bit longer. But that doesn't happen in the Tiger Woods Era. Howell missed, Woods made, and just like that the Tiger man had won seven consecutive PGA Tour events.

Now Tiger is off to the Dubai Desert Classic, a European Tour event, which is sort of like a heavyweight champion boxer fighting a non-title bout. In those fights, even if the champ loses he is still the champ. In Dubai, even if Tiger doesn't win, his streak is still alive because it is not a PGA Tour event. The best guess of when Woods will try for No. 8 in pursuit of the 11 in a row Byron Nelson recorded in 1945 is the Nissan Open at Riviera Country Club on Feb. 15. That would be interesting because Woods has never won the Riviera event, which was the first PGA Tour tournament in which he played, accepting a sponsor's exemption in 1992 at the age of 16.

Quinney and Buckle are both PGA Tour rookies and they performed about the way you'd expect rookies to fare when facing Woods down the stretch. The weird thing though -- and maybe this says as much about Woods and the wisdom of the path to greatness his pop Earl put him on as anything -- is that Tiger was a rookie for about a minute and a half. He won the fifth PGA Tour event he played as a professional and by his 15th -- the 1997 Masters, which he won by 12 strokes -- he was the best player in the world, and the discussion had already begun as to whether he'd become the best of all time.

Think for a minute what Woods has done. He now has 55 PGA Tour victories at the age of 31, trailing only Arnold Palmer (62), Ben Hogan (64), Jack Nicklaus (73) and Sam Snead (82). Tiger's 12 professional major championships are second only to the 18 Nicklaus has, and his 15 overall majors (including his three U.S. Amateur titles) chases the 20 Nicklaus has. Twice in his career now he has had winning streaks of six or longer. And, oh, by the way, the victory by Woods at Torrey Pines came after going nearly four months between PGA Tour events.

Now, there are going to be some who will try to denigrate Tiger's streak by saying it is over two seasons, and by saying there were events in there that he did not win. The first argument just makes no sense. Who cares if it was over two different seasons? Was it his fault that the season ended last year while he was on a hot streak? If a baseball player hits in 20 consecutive games and the seasons ends, he starts the next year with a 20-game hitting streak.

As for losing during the streak, it is true that he was knocked out in the HSBC Match Play Championship at Wentworth in England and finished second in two tournaments in Asia, but none of those three events are PGA Tour events. It would be like that baseball player with the 20-game hitting streak taking an 0-fer in a winter league game. He'd still have his hitting streak intact as far as Major League Baseball is concerned.

Please, let's right now silence those who will try to minimize what Woods has accomplished. He has won seven PGA Tour events in a row -- seven, for Pete's sake. I don't care if the leaderboard on Sunday at Torrey Pines had no names that would throw a scare into Wilbur Wood, let alone Tiger Woods. The last I looked Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh started the tournament. The fact is, pure and simple, Tiger put himself in a position to win -- and win he did.

Because there have been so many months between PGA Tour events for Woods it may take another week or two for the momentum to return to his quest, especially since this is Super Bowl week. But I'm guessing that by the time Woods tees it up again on tour -- remember, the Dubai Desert Classic this week doesn't count -- people will be paying attention.

Jeff Quinney and Andrew Buckle would probably take seven wins total as a pretty nice career. In fact, you could cut up Tiger's record and give about a dozen guys pretty nice careers. And the really cool thing is that we are not anywhere near the end of this ride. I thought in 2000, when Woods won nine times -- including three majors -- that we might well have seen his career year. I don't think that now. He is better than ever.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.