Thursday, March 20, 2003

Tiger, Els renew rivalry

World Nos.1, 2 are primed for Bay Hill duel

The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. - Tiger Woods and Ernie Els are rivals again, even if the world's two best golfers haven't made eye contact in five months and rarely have been within 6,000 miles of each other. That will change this week in the Bay Hill Invitational, where both are playing for the first time this year in a 72-hole event.

If they happen to meet Sunday in the final round, even better.

Bay Hill: USA (4-6 p.m. today-Friday); NBC (3-6 p.m. Saturday; 2:30-6 p.m. Sunday).
Safeway Ping: ESPN (1-3 p.m. Friday; 4-6 p.m. Saturday); ESPN2 (5-7 p.m. Sunday).
Toshiba: (5-7:30 p.m., 8:30-10:30 p.m. Friday); CNBC (6-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday).
"My expectations have risen a little in the last year or two, and I feel that if I don't step up now, I probably never will," Els said. "I'm at a time in my career where I've got to go for it, or I'm not going to do it at all."

Els, who has finished second to Woods more than any other player (six times), stopped Woods' bid for a Grand Slam by winning the British Open at Muirfield, and he has been gaining momentum at every turn.

He won the first two PGA Tour events in Hawaii. He won twice more against strong international fields in Australia. In his other two stroke-play tournaments, Els finished second by one shot.

"For me to get better, I've got to set new goals and loftier standards; that's what I've been trying to do," Els said. "Let's see where we go."

It has taken him on a collision course with the world's No. 1 player.

Woods appears up to the challenge. Despite missing two months after knee surgery, he has won twice in three tournaments, including the Match Play title.

"That wasn't too unexpected," Els said. "The guy is a true champion. He doesn't want to let go of the gap he's got on us."

Next up is Bay Hill, where Woods will try to become the first player since Walter Hagen in the PGA Championship (1924-27) to win the same tournament four years in a row. No one has ever won the same stroke-play tournament four consecutive years. "I like my chances because I like to compete," Woods said.

Bay Hill is where the Woods-Els rivalry first began to emerge five years ago.

Woods won his first major at the 1997 Masters by a record 12 strokes. Els answered by winning his second U.S. Open.

ANNIKA ON COURSE: Annika Sorenstam tees it up for the first time this year Friday in an LPGA tournament on a course where she shot a 59.

She's eager to begin what will be a historic season.

"I've had a lot of time off, to practice, to rest, to do anything," Sorenstam said. "So I'm excited to be here."

Sorenstam faces distractions she didn't have when she shot 59 in the Safeway Ping tournament at the Moon Valley Country Club in Phoenix in 2001. She was already the big star of the LPGA Tour, but the attention focused on her now is like nothing she has experienced before. It won't get any easier as Sorenstam plays her way toward the PGA Tour Colonial in May.

"I'm learning this is part of the whole thing," Sorenstam said. "It's not just about me playing Colonial. It's going to be everything around me and it's going to be every week. This is a good test for me, good practice."

CHIP SHOTS: Martha Burk thinks war with Iraq would "alter the tone and possibly the size" of her planned protest during the Masters. But Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, said Wednesday she still intends to protest April 12 at Augusta National - unless the all-male club allows female members or postpones the tournament.

"If the country is at war, it will alter the tone and possibly the size of any action that we bring," Burk said. "I want to stress that whether or not we are there is 100 percent the club's call."

Burk said Augusta National should consider postponing the Masters if the nation is at war.

• George Bayer, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour known for his booming drives, died at 77 Sunday at home in Palm Desert, Calif.

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