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Tiger Time With spring in the air and the Masters nearing, Tiger Woods shook off his winter doldrums and won at Bay Hill for the third straight year

Most long-ball hitters report to spring training at places like
Dodgertown or Legends Field, but Tiger Woods tunes up at a
different Florida destination--the Bay Hill Club in Orlando.
Last March, Woods followed a winless West Coast swing with a
victory at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational. The following
week he won again, at the Players Championship, and the momentum
carried him to a historic triumph at the Masters.

On Sunday, Woods expunged the memory of this season's West Coast
0-fer with his third straight victory at Bay Hill. Still aglow
from a rousing final-round 69, Woods offered a sobering
assessment of his game to his would-be competition. "It's
starting to come together," he said. "It's very similar to last
year, actually."

Woods is so good that he often seems like a force of nature, and
indeed his form is seasonal--as inevitable and overwhelming as a
monsoon. A busy schedule in the supposed off-season, November
and December, leaves him listless for the first 2 1/2 months of
PGA Tour play, but Woods's game blooms as soon as the azaleas
begin to blush in Augusta.

His latest victory at Bay Hill wasn't artful, but it was coldly
efficient. Fourteen players started the final round within three
shots of the front-running Woods, including four among the top
10 in the World Ranking--Phil Mickelson (No. 2), Ernie Els (No.
3), Sergio Garcia (No. 5) and Vijay Singh (No. 8). One by one
Woods outlasted them in the most extreme course conditions of
the young season. Piqued by ever-lower scores on his home
course, Palmer redesigned the greens with dastardly undulations
and runoffs and then decreed that the putting surfaces be baked
to roughly the firmness of granite. Throw in outrageously tucked
pins, and on Sunday, Woods was the only player among the leaders
who did not make a back-nine bogey. The four-stroke victory was
the 30th of his career, making the 26-year-old Woods the
youngest player in Tour history to reach that milestone. (Jack
Nicklaus, the previous record holder, was 30 when he won his

Woods's romp through the record books has been defined by two
epochal blowouts--the '97 Masters and the 2000 U.S. Open--but
for all the pyrotechnics he is golf's ultimate grinder, and his
most impressive performances often come when he doesn't have his
A game. He opened Bay Hill 67-65, at one point running his
bogey-free streak to 75 consecutive holes, dating back to the
Genuity Classic earlier this month. It was on Saturday that
Woods displayed heavy mettle, scratching and clawing his way to
a 74 that easily could have been an 80. "I was proud of myself
just for hanging in there," he said afterward. Still fighting
his swing on Sunday, he began the final round with a bogey on
the 1st hole, then suffered another after he was forced to take
an unplayable at the 6th hole. At the 8th, Woods saved par with
a 10-footer, a putt that ignited his round. "I've always said
this: You have to have the switch on," Woods said on Sunday
evening. "You can't turn it off and on. I'm giving everything I
have on every shot until I finish out the last hole."

This kind of intensity can be withering, and Woods put so much
into his victory at the 2001 Masters that it wiped him out for
the latter half of the year. Following a win at Nicklaus's
Memorial Tournament last June, Woods fell into one of the most
fallow periods of his career. In the meantime, David Duval won
his first major championship (the British Open), while Mickelson
made inroads on Woods's domination of the money list and the
World Ranking. Aided by the latest high-tech equipment, a host
of veterans and a handful of youngsters also dramatically raised
the level of their games. By the time Woods had bageled the 2002
West Coast swing, it had become trendy to say the gap was

This may be true at the Tour's frequent birdie-a-thons, but as
Woods proved yet again at Bay Hill, the harder the golf course,
the more pronounced his advantage. The competition may have
gotten longer, but Woods remains golf's most potent combination
of power and precision, as well as its best clutch putter. On
the 4th hole last Thursday a car alarm went off while Woods was
lining up a birdie chance--and he still drilled the putt.
Compare that kind of focus with the scatterbrained displays by
Mickelson, who on Sunday produced one of the most reckless shots
of a career checkered with questionable course management.

Trailing Woods by one stroke on the par-5 16th hole, Mickelson
blasted a drive into the trees and then tried to slash a
four-iron under a canopy of branches, over a pond and onto a
well-protected green. Of course he drowned the shot, all but
handing the tournament to the more prudent Woods, who, after a
so-so drive, laid up on 16. Against the likes of Mickelson,
Woods has a simple plan: "Don't make a mental mistake," he says.
"Think your way around the golf course. If you can just hang
around near the lead, anything can happen."

That was the story at last year's Masters, where Woods let
Mickelson and Duval give away the tournament with mistakes down
the stretch. Augusta National will be an even more exacting test
April 11-14. The retrofitted course is now more than 300 yards
longer, with more penal bunkering and tighter driving areas,
thanks to new, strategically placed trees. Though such redesigns
are often thought of as Tiger-proofing, the changes in fact play
to Woods's strengths.

The only players to have won back-to-back Masters are Nicklaus
(1965 and '66) and Nick Faldo (1989 and '90), and Woods is well
aware of that. Few current players revere the past as he does,
and Woods has honored it in his own singular way, winning both
Arnie's and Jack's respective tournaments three years running.
But it is the majors in general, and the Masters in particular,
that drive Woods, and no one understands this better than
Palmer, with his four green jackets. On Sunday he saluted
Woods's Bay Hill winning streak, but even he couldn't help but
look ahead. "In this day and age, that [streak] is an amazing
thing," Palmer said. "But Tiger will continue to do amazing

COLOR PHOTO: CHARLES W. LUZIER/REUTERS ToucheFourteen players were within three strokes of Woods entering the final round, and he still smoked the field by four shots.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [See caption above]