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Woods tries to keep winning streak alive at Arnie's place

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

By DOUG FERGUSON

AP Golf Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tiger Woods used to play like royalty on The King's course.

Woods was a skinny 15-year-old when he won his first U.S. Junior title at Bay Hill in 1991. When his first hit his stride as a pro, Woods set a record by winning four straight years at what is now the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and the last one was a joke. Despite dehydration and the dry heaves, he won by 11 shots.

So this would seem like an ideal spot for Woods to keep alive a winning streak that dates to September, except for one thing. As brilliant as he was during that four-year stretch through 2003, he has played like a court jester ever since.

He has not fared better than 20th over the last four years, his longest such drought of any tournament in the world.

"I just haven't play well, simple as that," Woods said Wednesday. "This golf course, you have to play well on it in order to win the tournament. You can't go out there and slap it around and try and shoot something in the mid-60s here."

A year ago might have been the low point. He hit into the water on the last two holes, closing double bogey-triple bogey for a 43 on the back nine that dropped him into a tie for 22nd.

Then again, last year seems like a lifetime now.

Woods has been unbeatable since he was a runner-up to Phil Mickelson at the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston, winning twice after that to capture the inaugural FedEx Cup, then starting his PGA Tour season with an eight-shot victory at the Buick Invitational and a record 8-and-7 victory in the Accenture Match Play Championship, and shooting 31 on the back nine to win the Dubai Desert Classic.

This doesn't count in the record books, but he also won his Target World Challenge by seven shots.

The last two PGA Tour victories put him at 63 for his career, moving past Palmer -- The King -- on the career list.

"We don't have time for me to tell you what I think about Tiger and his golf," Palmer said Wednesday. "Because I think that right now, he has got it by the neck, and he's choking it. And he should."

Bay Hill is the true start to Woods' road to the Masters, the first leg of a Grand Slam that he has said was "easily within reason." Next up is the CA Championship at Doral, where Woods has won three straight years.

Bay Hill has been more fickle -- not just Woods' performance, but the course itself.

Palmer was genuinely concerned a month ago when he brought in top agronomists from the country and himself looked into a microscope to learn about nematode, a type of worm on a blade of grass that was killing the greens at Bay Hill.

Sod was plugged on some of the greens, and the PGA Tour posted a notice last week that greens were improved, but would not be ideal. The early scouting report was they were fine on the front nine, a bit shaky on the back.

Mainly, they will be slower than usual.

"They are not very good," Woods said. "It's going to be an interesting week on them. You're going to see a lot of guys hit good putts and they're going to go weird ways, unfortunately. But, hey -- we've all got to deal with it."

The tournament also got three additions Wednesday during a bizarre chain-reaction of events that began when John Daly missed his pro-am time and was disqualified from the tournament.

Daly, playing on a sponsor's exemption, said he called Tuesday to get his pro-am time, but was given his tee time for the first round, which was 9:47 a.m. His pro-am time was 8:40 a.m., and when Daly didn't show up, he no longer was eligible to play.

The first two alternates -- Ryuji Imada and Nick O'Hern -- thought they were not supposed to be at Bay Hill until the afternoon. When they weren't around to take Daly's spot, they were disqualified, too.

Ernie Els previously withdrew, citing fatigue. That leaves only three of the top 10 in the world ranking -- defending champion Vijay Singh is No. 11 -- but plenty of interest because of a certain No. 1.

A victory for Woods at Bay Hill would give him four tournaments that he has won at least five times.

"He can play pretty average and win," Masters champion Zach Johnson said. "Most of us have to play pretty darned good. Plus, he's got that Nicklaus aura when he's in contention."

Even so, Bay Hill has been feast or famine for Woods.

During four bountiful years of posing with Palmer and the silver sword trophy, Woods had a 67.93 scoring average and was 65-under par. In the four lean years that followed, his average has been 71.37, and he is a combined 2 under.

Perhaps more noteworthy is he only three-putted twice over 288 holes of winning. During the drought, he has had eight three-putts.

Woods has not played the last two weeks, at least golf.

He did face John Smoltz in a simulated game during Atlanta Braves spring training, and while Woods wasn't forthcoming with details, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said he was 1-for-3 with two strikeouts, and a single up the middle on a 75 mph change-up.

Woods also was at Madison Square Garden on Monday to watch Roger Federer beat Pete Sampras in an exhibition.

As for the golf?

"I'm heading in the right direction," Woods said. "Really excited about the way I'm progressing this year so far. Getting better each and every event, which is good."



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