Leave it to Tiger to raise the bar again ... on himself

Even by Tiger Woods' standards, this start to the season has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Woods has two wins and a fifth-place showing in three 2003 events, his second-best start since he joined the tour in 1996. He's done it coming off the longest layoff of his career, and with a surgically repaired knee no less.

The only time Woods has gotten off to a better beginning to a season was in 2000, when he won the season-opening Mercedes and Pebble Beach Pro-Am and finished second at the Accenture Match Play. Woods captured nine titles that year -- three of them major championships.

This time around, Woods bested his runner-up finish at the Match Play by putting on a dominating performance at La Costa. Against the top players in the world in golf's toughest format -- played at a wet, windy and punishing La Costa -- Woods needed only 112 holes to win the title, the fewest of any winner in the five-year history of the event.

Though he wasn't at his best Sunday -- he made more than twice as many bogeys against David Toms than he did all week -- Woods still made the big putts and never trailed in the match.

Some facts and figures from Woods' week:

  • Of the 112 holes played, he won 40 of them, lost 18 and made just four bogeys, three of them Sunday.

  • Woods made 25 birdies and three eagles.

  • He trailed on only 10 holes all week, and was never more than 2 down in any of his six matches.

  • Before the final Sunday, Woods hit 56 of 77 greens in regulation (72 percent) and 42 of 60 fairways (70 percent).

    Tiger Woods' rank on the all-time PGA Tour wins list. He moved into a tie for 11th with his Match Play triumph, pulling even with Lloyd Mangrum.

    Around the tours

    WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship
    Carlsbad, Calif.
    Course (par 72):
    La Costa Resort and Spa (7,247 yards)
    Top finishers:
    1 Tiger Woods
    2 David Toms
    3 Adam Scott
    4 Peter Lonard

    Chrysler Classic of Tucson
    Tucson, Ariz.
    Course (par 72):
    Omni Tucson National Golf Resort & Spa (7,109 yards)
    Top finishers:
    1 Frank Lickliter II
    2 Chad Campbell
    3 Brenden Pappas
    T4 Aaron Barber
    T4 Bob Tway

    This week:
    No event
    Next event:
    MasterCard Classic (March 7-9)

    This week:
    No event
    Next event:
    Dubai Desert Classic (March 6-9)

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

    Jacob's Creek Open Championship
    Adelaide, South Australia
    Kooyonga Golf Club

    Top finishers:
    1 Joe Ogilvie
    2 Shane Tait
    T3 Mahal Pearce
    T3 David Morland
    T3 Peter Senior

    Elsewhere ...
    Australian Women's Open
    Winner: Mhairi McKay

    Five observations
    1. Toms' performance from Friday to Sunday was as gutsy as it gets.

    After spending four hours in the hospital Thursday night with food poisoning, Toms bounced back Friday to defeat Alex Cejka, winning the last two holes for the 1-up victory.

    Saturday, Toms beat Jerry Kelly 4 and 3 before being taken to the limit by Peter Lonard, birdieing the 18th -- his 33rd hole of the day -- to reach the final.

    And Sunday, in the grittiest performance of all, a drained Toms battled back from 5 down after 19 holes to draw within a hole of Woods, who sealed the deal on the 35th hole when it appeared it would be over long before that.

    ''I'm not going to quit,'' Toms said. ''That's not my nature. We're on national TV and I wanted to last a long time. I didn't want to be embarrassed. When he got 5 up, I just had to dig deep and not give in.''

    In total, Toms played 76 holes after the bout with food poisoning, winning 23 of them and losing 19.

    2. Does Adam Scott have a bright future ahead of him or what?

    The 22-year-old Aussie gave Woods his toughest match of the week in Saturday's semifinals. One down with one to play, Scott birdied the 18th to send it to extra holes. On the 19th, though, Scott missed a three-foot putt that would have sent it to a 20th hole. Had he not missed, we very well might have been watching a Tiger-less final Sunday afternoon.

    Sunday, Scott was involved in the strangest match of the week. After going 6 up on Lonard after eight holes of the third-place match, Scott failed to win a hole the rest of the way but still eked out the 1-up victory. By holding off his fellow Aussie, Scott earned himself the biggest payday of his career: $480,000.

    ''I think I really stepped it up a level this week,'' he said.

    Last year, Scott won twice on the European tour and finished tied for ninth at The Masters. And his success at Augusta isn't the only thing Scott has in common with Woods.

    Scott is just about as long as Woods off the tee, and has a swing that's strikingly similar (both were pupils of Butch Harmon). The only fault in his game is on the greens, where he has a tendency to miss a few too many short putts. Still, Scott is a bona fide talent, and we should see a lot more of him -- particularly in the United States -- in the years to come.

    3. Woods got to take home the trophy, but the Accenture Match Play was the real winner this week.

    In the event's four-year history prior to 2003, no one seeded higher than 19th had won the title, and only one player seeded in the top 18 -- Tiger Woods in 2000 -- had reached the final. Last year, the top two seeds -- Woods and Phil Mickelson -- were ousted in the first round, and no one seeded better than 25th reached the final four. The final was between Kevin Sutherland and Scott McCarron -- not exactly household names.

    This year's Match Play didn't start with a bang -- No. 2 seed Ernie Els was shown the door in the first round -- but it sure ended with one. The Accenture organizers had themselves a bona fide final between two major championship winners. Of course, any time Woods is in contention Sunday you're going to have a ratings bonanza, but Toms playing second fiddle was an added bonus.

    4. If the West Coast swing has told us anything, it's that the young guns still have some dues to pay and lessons to learn before beginning their reign on the PGA Tour.

    Of the nine events on the West Coast swing, which concluded this week with the Match Play and Chrysler Classic of Tucson, six were won by major championship winners (two from Woods and Ernie Els, one apiece from Vijay Singh and Davis Love III) and two were taken by Mike Weir, who has Tour Championship and World Golf Championship victories to his credit among five career titles. The three multiple winners over the first nine tournaments of the year were the most since 1976.

    Last year, first-time winners took five of the nine titles on the West Coast swing and only one victor -- Jose Maria Olazabal -- had a major championship on his resume.

    So why the difference between this year and last?

    Part of it might be that an increasing number of players are taking the West Coast swing more seriously. It's no longer a tune-up to get ready for Florida and The Masters.

    Another factor could be the tough hole positions we've seen this year, which the tour has used to combat improvements in equipment technology. Particularly in the last few weeks, we've seen flags just three or four steps from the edge of the green.

    It seems golf has become a thinking man's game again, better suited to wilier veterans than young bombers. That's not to say younger players don't think on the golf course, but it can be argued that those who have been around the block a few times have a decided strategic edge when the pins are tucked away.

    5. While the world's best golfers were at the Match Play, the rest of the PGA Tour was at the Chrysler Classic of Tucson, and some of the rookie class took advantage of the weak field to line their pockets. A few of the notables:

  • Aaron Barber earned a cool $132,000 with his tie for fourth. It was his first paycheck of the season after missing the cut in his first four events.

  • Rookie Arron Oberholser continued his great start, finishing tied for sixth. He's made the cut in all six events he's played this year.

  • Former NCAA champion James McLean also had the biggest payday of his young PGA Tour career, taking home $40,500 for his tie for 18th place.

  • Remember Aaron Baddeley? The stylish young Aussie all but disappeared after his second-place showing at the Sony in January, but finished a respectable 18th in Tucson.

    Up next ...
    PGA Tour: Ford Championship
    The PGA Tour kicks off its Florida swing at the Blue Monster. Last year's champ Ernie Els won't defend his title, but many of the Match Play participants will head to Miami to begin getting ready for The Masters. Tiger Woods won't be one of them, he's taking the week off.

    Champions Tour: MasterCard Classic
    The 50-and-over crowd heads south of the border this week to Mexico, where last year Bruce Lietzke held off Hale Irwin for his third career Champions Tour title.

    European Tour: Dubai Desert Classic
    Woods and a few other notables pulled out of the event due to the uncertain political climate in the Middle East, but Mark O'Meara and Els will be among those making the trip to the desert.

    Nationwide Tour: Holden Clearwater Classic
    The kids are staying Down Under for their second event of the season.

    David Lefort is ESPN.com's golf editor, and can be reached at david.m.lefort@espn3.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.