Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Woods looking like the 2000 version

By Doug Ferguson
The Associated Press

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Take away that tee shot Tiger Woods hooked into the tennis courts at Riviera and he might be 4-for-4 since his return to the PGA Tour.

OK, so he's not perfect.

Woods will have to be satisfied with three victories in the four tournaments he has played since a two-month layoff for knee surgery.

He leads the money list. His scoring average is the lowest on the PGA Tour by more than one stroke per round. The gap between Woods and the rest of golf looks to be as wide as it has ever been.

What does it all mean?

"It means it's very similar to how I felt in 2000," Woods said after winning the Bay Hill Invitational.

He became the first player in 73 years to win the same tournament four years in a row, and his 11-stroke victory was his fourth by double digits.

Heading into the first big stretch of the year, Woods appears to be on the verge of a dominance not seen since he shattered scoring records, won nine times on the PGA Tour and captured three straight majors in 2000.

Is this the encore?

Woods just turned 27 and is still years away from his prime. He prides himself on getting better each year through improvements only he can see.

"I've always wanted to become a better player at the end of the year than I was at the beginning of the year," Woods said. "If I keep doing that for the rest of my life, I'll have a pretty good career. So far, I've been able to do that."

The results are a little more tangible.

In his first tournament back from surgery, Woods easily disposed of Phil Mickelson and won the Buick Invitational by four strokes with three straight rounds in the 60s on the South Course at Torrey Pines, site of the 2008 U.S. Open.

At the Match Play Championship, Woods was never seriously challenged in any of his six matches and made only five bogeys in 112 holes on a difficult La Costa course.

He might have been most impressive at Bay Hill.

Woods played the final 44 holes without a bogey. He played the final 18 holes so weak from food poisoning that he threw up three times on his first five holes. He played with Ernie Els for the first time all year in the third round and was six strokes better.

Els finished the tournament 19 strokes behind.

"He's still the man," Els said after the third round.

The only lapse during Woods' return was the Nissan Open at Riviera. He pulled his tee shot on the par-5 first hole so badly that it clanged off the television trucks and into the tennis courts, leading to a double bogey.

He wound up in a tie for fifth, three strokes out of a playoff.

Even so, Woods has 10 straight finishes in the top 10, the longest streak of his career. The only other time he has won three times before the Masters was in 2000.

Woods often says that he will always be compared to 2000, and there are some who believe he will never reach that level again.

Next up for Woods is The Players Championship, the so-called fifth major that he won two years ago. Two weeks later, he will try to become the first player to win three straight times at the Masters.

"As hard as he hits it, he never looks like he's out of control," Brad Faxon said. "He swings beautiful. It's inspiring."

Mickelson is longer off the tee, and so is Els. Both often hit their drivers well past Woods at Torrey Pines and at Bay Hill.

Woods, however, separates himself by rarely making mistakes or missing crucial putts. His short game remains miles ahead of anyone else.

"I know my management skills around the golf course are a lot better than they were in 2000, just because of experience," Woods said. "Every year, they are going to get better."

The swing is not far behind.

Woods says his left knee still is not 100 percent, although no one should question his health. Not only did he play 112 holes in five days at the Match Play Championship, he had to play 29 holes Saturday at the rain-delayed Bay Hill. The surgery eliminated pain and allows Woods to swing freely.

"My swing feels like I'm able to make the same type of move that I did in 2000 without having to alter my swing," he said. "I'm able to step up there and make the proper swing, get the proper arc and not worry about the consequences."

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