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Woods, Mickelson headline Buick Invitational field

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

By DOUG FERGUSON

AP Golf Writer

SAN DIEGO -- At sunrise Wednesday at Torrey Pines, the PGA Tour began a slow shift back to golf.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have not been on the same piece of property in nearly four months, since celebrating a U.S. victory at the Presidents Cup in Montreal. They were on the first tee together in the chilly morning of the Buick Invitational pro-am -- Woods on the South Course, Mickelson on the North Course -- before making their 2008 debut.

This was one day after a player meeting on the new anti-doping policy that brought the occasional outburst.

This was two days after Woods' first public comments on a Golf Channel anchor getting suspended for jokingly suggesting that young players "lynch" Woods in a back alley. Only three days before that, a magazine editor was fired for putting a noose on the cover.

And a dozen or so players are still livid over the PGA Tour's new cut policy that kept 18 guys from playing on the weekend in the first full-field tournament of the year.

Some feel the PGA Tour season doesn't start until Woods shows up.

This year, it couldn't come fast enough.

Woods and Mickelson headline the field at the Buick Invitational, which is sure to have some sizzle beyond the fact they are No. 1 and No. 2 in the world ranking and the two biggest personalities in golf.

They have combined to win this tournament six of the last eight years, and Woods is the three-time defending champion. A win this week would be his sixth victory in 12 season-openers, and allow him to tie Arnold Palmer in career tour victories with 62.

And while the majors don't start until April at Augusta, consider this week a sneak preview of the U.S. Open, which will be held at Torrey Pines in June and will be substantially tougher.

Woods caused a stir earlier this month by saying the Grand Slam was "easily within reason," and he hasn't backed off.

"For most of my career, I've won more than four tournaments per year, and all I have to do is win the right four," Woods said. "And I've done those a few times. I think if you put it all together, have luck on your sides, all the stars will line up, and it certainly is possible."

One challenge could come from Mickelson, whose season last year was slowed by a wrist injury. He won two of the last four events he played, including a duel with Woods outside Boston and his first international victory at the HSBC Champions in China.

"My excitement level for '08 is extremely high because I feel very comfortable with the swing changes I've made over the last nine months with Butch Harmon," Mickelson said. "I feel like I'm ready to play competitively without having to think about the nuances of that and to be able to react again to shots, as opposed to having to think about swing mechanics."

There were still a few lingering effects of the other issues.

Woods again said he spoke to Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman about the "lynch" comment during the telecast from the Mercedes-Benz Championship and he thought the incident was over.

Then came a picture of a noose on the cover of Golfweek magazine, "and from there it created more of a firestorm," he said.

Woods also was asked if he felt he should have been more outspoken on such a social issue, and he responded by mentioning his work with children at the Tiger Woods Learning Center and other education programs through his foundation.

"I know there are people who want me to be a champion of all causes, and I just can't do that," Woods said.

Woods attended the mandatory player meeting Tuesday morning to discuss the anti-doping policy and said the program was "fantastic." Then again, it was Woods who said in August 2006 that drug testing could start "tomorrow." He'll have to wait until July.

Others were not so diplomatic.

Several players told of Frank Lickliter being outraged -- and drawing loud applause -- by the idea of someone coming to his house for a sample. The tour has said testing could happen anytime, anywhere, without notice.

Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger said he had a heated discussion with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem over the process of drug testing, which includes having a monitor on hand when a player gives a urine sample.

"I'm all for drug testing," Azinger said. "I just think to have somebody make us drop our pants and lift our shirt to make sure we don't have a urine sample strapped to our side is a little undignified."

For his part, Finchem isn't thrilled with having to test his players for drugs.

"This is all new to all of us," he said.

What's not new is seeing Woods and Mickelson stalking the cliffside course north of San Diego, with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and a buzz returning to the players who made golf interesting.

Tilghman, meanwhile, returns to work at Torrey Pines after a two-week suspension and plans an on-air apology at the top of coverage Thursday. CBS Sports takes over coverage on the weekend, the first time golf is on a network this year, and on the weekend where the NFL is taking a break before the Super Bowl.

This isn't a major and doesn't feel like one, even with the U.S. Open coming in June. But it has Woods and Mickelson, and those two tend make the PGA Tour more about golf.



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