Tiger's dominant return should come as no surprise

Only the most optimistic golf prognosticators gave Tiger Woods a chance to win this week in his first tournament after December knee surgery.

And among the enlightened few, even fewer believed he would do so in such dominant fashion.

But looking back, why shouldn't we all have picked Tiger to take the PGA Tour by storm in his return? After all, hasn't he been doing that for the last seven years? The Tiger Slam. The 12-stroke victory at Augusta in 1997. The 15-shot runaway at the U.S. Open in 2000. The entire 2000 season.

We should have known.

We wanted to believe that equipment technology, increased fitness and an influx of young talent had brought the field closer to Tiger, that Woods would have a harder time than ever maintaining his position as the No. 1 player in the game -- especially considering the long layoff.

As it turns out, it was business as usual for Woods in his return engagement, and -- outside of a machine named Ernie -- there's no evidence that points to the contrary for the rest of 2003.

While rusty in his first round Thursday, Tiger was his old self Friday and into the weekend. And wouldn't you know it, he saved his best performance for Sunday.

Now who could have guessed that?

The number of events played before picking up victories in both 2001 and 2002. It only took him one in 2003.

Around the tours

This week:
Buick Invitational
La Jolla, Calif.
Courses (par 72):
Torrey Pines North (6,874 yards) and South (7,607 yards) courses
Top finishers:
1 Tiger Woods

2 Carl Pettersson
3 Brad Faxon
T4 Briny Baird
T4 Arron Oberholser
T4 Phil Mickelson

This week:
Ace Group Classic
Naples, Fla.
The Club at TwinEagles (7,134 yards, par 72)

Top finishers:
1 Vicente Fernandez
T2 Des Smyth
T2 Tom Watson
T4 Gil Morgan
T4 Tom Purtzer
T4 Jay Overton

This week:
Johnnie Walker Classic
Perth, Australia
Lake Karrinyup CC (7,014 yards, par 72)

Top finishers:
1 Ernie Els
T2 Stephen Leaney
T2 Andre Stolz
T4 Justin Rose
T4 Robert Allenby
T4 Retief Goosen
T4 David Smail
T4 Jean-Francois Remesy

This week:
No event
Next event:
Welch's/Fry's Championship (March 13-16)

This week:
No event
Next event:
Jacob's Creek Open Championship
(Feb. 27-March 2)

Five observations
1. Some facts and figures from Tiger's first week back:

Avoiding the big numbers: Woods said one of the most surprising things about his 2003 debut was that he made only four bogeys all week. Even when he was spraying the ball all over the place off the tee in the first round (he hit only two of 14 fairways), Woods still displayed the trademark scrambling skills that have bailed him out time and time again.

Reining it in: While overall Woods didn't really show any rust from his layoff, he did have his problems finding the fairway -- at least initially. In Thursday's first round, Woods found the short grass off the tee on only two of 14 holes. However, that number improved as the week went on: He hit seven of 14 Friday and nine on both Saturday and Sunday.

Still a closer: They hid the pins Sunday on the South course, and it showed on the scorecards. Only 11 of 74 players broke 70, and among them, just one -- Tim Clark -- had a better score than Woods' 68.

Woods has held at least a share of the 54-hole lead 29 times in his career (including Saturday), and he has 27 trophies to show for it.

Thanks for the memories: Every big Woods victory doesn't come without its signature shots, and this week was no exception.

With only a two-shot lead Sunday, Woods stuck a 4-iron within three feet -- his best swing of the day -- on the 231-yard par-3 11th to send the crowd into an uproar. Brad Faxon and Phil Mickelson, Woods' final-round playing partners, both hit their shots to the left of the green, and Lefty went on to make the first of two bogeys.

Woods' best shot of the tournament came on the 15th. Using the same 4-iron from ankle-deep rough, Woods carved a beauty around a tree from 200 yards out to 15 feet. He then made that birdie putt that pretty much sealed the win.

2. It appears Ernie Els is the only thing standing between Woods and another year of dominance.

Els continued his otherworldly 2003 in Australia, where he picked up his fourth win in five events at the Johnnie Walker Classic on Sunday. The Big Easy waltzed to victory by a whopping 10 strokes, and his 29-under score set a European Tour 72-hole record in relation to par.

In just five weeks, Els has broken both the PGA Tour (31-under at the Mercedes) and European Tour scoring records, and is an aggregate 100-under par in 20 rounds.

That's reason for even Woods to shake in his Nikes. Unfortunately for golf fans, we'll probably have to wait for the Dubai Desert Classic in March for the first head-to-head meeting of the season between Woods and Els.

They're both entered in the WGC World Match Play in two weeks, but the only way they can meet is if they both make the finals -- a scenario that's gaining likelihood every week.

3. The final-round duel between Mickelson and Woods in the final group Sunday never really materialized. Lefty began the round two strokes behind Woods, and the deficit was five by the sixth hole (the final difference was six strokes).

OK, so the head-to-head battle was no contest, but let's break down their numbers for the week, and see which player was using the "inferior equipment:"

  • Birdies: Woods 18, Mickelson 18
    Advantage: Push

  • Driving average: Woods 298, Mickelson 299
    Advantage: Mickelson, by a nose.

  • Driving accuracy: Woods 48.2 percent, Mickelson 51.8 percent
    Advantage: Mickelson, again by a nose.

  • Greens in regulation: Woods 73.6 percent, Mickelson 75 percent
    Advantage: Mickelson, you guessed it, by a nose.

    Looks like Woods could just about keep up with Lefty off the tee, but here's where the tournament was won and lost:

  • Bogeys or worse: Woods 4, Mickelson 5 (including two doubles)
    Advantage: Woods.

  • Putts per round: Woods 27.3 (tied for best in field), Mickelson 29
    Advantage: Woods.

    And what do you know, the top two at the Buick were both players who use "inferior" Nike gear: Woods, and PGA Tour rookie Carl Pettersson.

    4. Charles Howell III made his first real statement of the year Sunday.

    Howell jumped from 14th into a tie for seventh with a final-round 69 (tied for the third-lowest score of the day). The finish was his first top-10 of the year, and comes after a missed cut at the Bob Hope two weeks ago.

    If Howell is indeed poised for a huge 2003, as many have predicted, we might point to the Buick as the place where he got the ball rolling.

    5. Vicente Fernandez bogeyed his first hole of the Champions Tour's ACE Group Classic, and didn't have another blemish all weekend.

    Fernandez played his last 53 holes bogey-free, and went on to win his first tournament in three years Sunday with a final-round 68 to finish at 14-under 202.

    What it means for ...

    Brad Faxon: Had his second top-10 finish in as many weeks, and didn't play poorly as the forgotten man in the final group Sunday with Mickelson and Woods. His putter, normally his strength, betrayed him at times, but overall it was a strong showing. He heads into Riviera this week for the Nissan Open, where he finished tied for second last year.

    Arron Oberholser: The rookie had the best finish of his short career this week. After starting with a first-round 65, the 28-year-old finished 70-72-71 to grab a spot in the top 10 and earn $186,000 -- almost as much as he earned all last year on the Nationwide Tour.

    Tim Clark: The only player with a final round better than Tiger Woods. He jumped from 35th into a tie for 12th with his Sunday 67.

    Jonathan Kaye: Went an 11-hole stretch in Sunday's up-and-down final round with only one par, making six birdies and four bogeys in that span. He ended up finishing in a tie for seventh after an even-par round, but two late bogeys cost him a third-place finish and around $250,000.

    Up next ...
    PGA Tour: Nissan Open
    Tiger Woods is back again this week at Riviera in Los Angeles, where Len Mattiace is the defending champion. Woods has never won the event, but finished runner-up twice, in 1998 and 1999.

    Champions Tour: Verizon Classic
    Doug Tewell will defend this week in Tampa. Last year, he held off a charging Hale Irwin to win his fifth career Champions Tour title.

    European Tour: Carlsberg Malaysian Open
    The Euros head to Malaysia this week without Ernie Els, who is taking the week off and won't return to the tour until the Dubai Desert Classic in March.

    David Lefort is ESPN.com's golf editor, and can be reached at david.m.lefort@espn3.com.