Sunday, March 23, 2003

Tiger tames field, leads by five shots

Els falls 10 shots off Woods' pace at Bay Hill event

The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. - The gallery crammed behind the ropes from tee to green on the opening hole, the enthusiasm at full throttle over the prospect of a showdown between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els.

All they got Saturday was the Tiger Woods Show.

Dominant in every phase of the game, Woods left his top rival and everyone else in his wake with a 6-under 66 that gave him a five-stroke lead and put him on the verge of his fourth straight victory in the Bay Hill Invitational.

"He's still the man," said Els, whose four-shot deficit to start the third round was twice that much after only six holes.

"Tiger just did his thing. He was relentless today."

Woods and Els, the top two golfers in the world, had not even made eye contact in five months until they greeted each other on the practice green about 20 minutes before they headed to the first tee.

Woods said goodbye with three birdies on his first five holes and another magical display with his short game and his driving. He played 29 holes Saturday - 11 of them in the morning to finish the rain-delayed second round - and made 12 birdies.

"On this golf course, if you drive it well you're going to have some pretty good opportunities," said Woods, who has missed only five fairways all week.

He was at 15-under 201 and led by five over Brad Faxon, who had a 65.

Woods is 27-2 with at least a share of the 54-hole lead in PGA Tour events, and he has never lost when leading by more than one stroke going into the final round.

"I'd love to be that 'never' guy," Faxon said.

That might be a long shot at Bay Hill, a tournament that Woods owns. This is the fourth straight year he has led after 54 holes.

Woods can become the first player to win the same tournament four straight times since Gene Sarazen in the Miami Open from 1926 to 1930. The Miami Open wasn't played in 1927, when it switched from a fall to a spring date.

Woods could sense the energy in the crowd on a steamy afternoon when the beer was flowing and emotions were running high. Fans shouted out both players' names as they walked down the fairways and onto the tee boxes.

That didn't affect Woods.

"I knew I had to take care of business today and set myself up for tomorrow," he said. "You have to put all that stuff aside and focus on what you need to do."

Faxon also played in the final group with Woods at Torrey Pines, starting only one stroke behind and finishing five back. Asked what was a reasonable deficit to make up on Woods, Faxon smiled and said, "How about him four strokes behind?"

"One of my goals is to play more with Tiger, and not in the practice rounds," Faxon said. "He's the favorite. There's no superlatives left."

Stewart Cink, who also played in the final group, got within two strokes of Woods until a bogey on No. 8. He closed with 10 straight pars for a 70 and was at 208.

Aaron Baddeley, the 22-year-old Aussie, had a brief scare from an alligator and wound up with a 70 to finish in a large group at 7-under 209.

Woods had the advantage long before he and Els met on the practice green, where they stood back-to-back as they hit putts.

A few hours earlier, Woods had set the tournament record with 10 birdies in one round. He made six of them in 11 holes Saturday morning to complete the rain-delayed second round with a 7-under 65, giving him a three-stroke lead over Cink.

Els was four strokes behind, a daunting gap considering he was chasing Woods at Bay Hill, a course where Woods has dominated the last three years.

The Big Easy holed a 25-foot birdie putt on the first hole, but everything fell apart after that. His right wrist was sore, his putting was off and his chances faded fast.

"He loves playing with me, I can promise you that," Els said with a laugh. He has been runner-up to Woods six times, more than any other player.

Woods hit an 8-iron into 5 feet on the par-3 second hole for birdie, and it soon became clear that Els was struggling to find the pace on the greens.

Els three-putted from 15 feet on the fringe for bogey at No. 3, and any thought of a Sunday duel vanished on the fifth hole.

Woods missed the green to the left, the ball in the first cut but nestled close to the thick grass. His chip came out clean and rolled in for Woods' third birdie in five holes.

"I honestly wasn't trying to chip that in," Woods said. "I just wanted to make sure I had the correct pace."

Els could only smile, knowing he was in for another long day. The Big Easy pulled his tee shot into the water on the par-5 sixth and had to scramble for bogey, but the damage was already severe.

Baddeley provided the most excitement on No. 6.

His tee shot nearly went into the water, and he found a more severe hazard - an alligator not far from his ball. Baddeley scared the gator into the lake, then rolled up his lime-green pants and stepped into the water to take his stance.

Faxon caused the only other stir, although not many took notice until he birdied four out of five holes around the turn to become Woods' only serious challenger.


Trevor Immelman became the first player in the 25-year history at Bay Hill to go from the first-round lead to missing the cut. The 23-year-old South African made two quadruple bogeys by hitting two balls into the water on No. 18 and No. 6, and he finished the second round with an 80. ... Woods' girlfriend, Elin Nordegren, was released from the hospital Saturday morning. She collapsed outside the clubhouse Friday afternoon because of food poisoning and dehydration. ... The final round will start at 8 a.m. Sunday because of the prospects of heavy afternoon thunderstorms.

Woods vs. Els

A breakdown of how Tiger Woods and Ernie Els have played at the Bay Hill Invitational. Numbers are totals over three rounds:


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