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More Bark Than Bite Sure, Tiger enhanced his rep as a merciless match player with his win at La Costa, but his wayward drives left lots of questions about his game

A match play tournament is slightly twisted, no matter how you look
at it. As Ireland's Padraig Harrington said during last week's
Accenture Match Play Championship, "The good thing is that you
only have to beat one guy a match. The bad thing is that you can
only beat one guy a match." ¶ That explains, in a way, why Tiger
Woods won at soggy, rough-laden La Costa Resort and Spa for a
second straight year. He didn't play as well as some of the other
elite golfers in the 64-man field. He simply played well enough
to beat one guy every match. Was it Woods's mystique, his mental
toughness, his masterly short game or a combination of the three
that allowed him to steal his first-round match against John
Rollins--a loss that would've been akin to The Lord of the
Rings losing the Oscar to Gigli--and to beat Davis Love III 3
and 2 in the 36-hole final?

Woods's winning the Match Play hardly ranks as an upset. Match
play, even more than stroke play, is all about putting, and if
Woods isn't the best putter on Tour, he is certainly the best
putter under pressure. He needed 45 putts in the final. Love took
54. There's your difference-maker. Woods didn't miss any putts
that mattered over the final 18. Love didn't make any that did.
"I didn't get the ball in the hole very well," Love said. "If I'd
had Brad Faxon putting for me from where I drove it, I'd have won
5 or 6 up."

Rollins and Love both outplayed Woods, yet lost. "Jack Nicklaus
had a mystique because he kept on winning," Love said. "Tiger's
mystique has worn off a little, but it's not gone. You don't look
at the Match Play brackets and say, 'Good, I'll be playing
Tiger.' Duke and Kansas are harder to beat in basketball because
of their reputations. If another team gets ahead of Duke, it
knows Duke is going to come back. It expects Duke to come back.
It's the same with Tiger. I had position on him all day in the
fairway, and I was only one up after 18 holes. I knew he'd come
back. I let him get away."

On the surface, this latest win reinforces the Woods legend--40
Tour wins (surpassing Gene Sarazen and Tom Watson on the alltime
list) at age 28; eight victories in the 14 World Golf
Championships played thus far; 12 straight matches won in the
Match Play (and a 20-3 overall record); seven successful title
defenses; 118 straight tournaments in the money; and 238
consecutive weeks at No. 1 in the World Ranking.

But take a closer look. Last year Woods's impressive performance
in the Match Play, coupled with an earlier win at Torrey Pines in
his first week back after knee surgery, persuaded everyone that
Tiger was on a fast track to his biggest year ever. That didn't
happen. Conversely, this year's Match Play win, Woods's first of
2004, reinforces a different conclusion. What we saw at La Costa
was a vulnerable, beatable Woods whose challengers have closed
the gap on him more than anyone--with the possible exception of
Vijay Singh--realizes.

The swing problems that plagued Woods last year--and rendered him
a nonfactor in all four majors--have not been resolved, not by a
long shot. Woods hit barely half of the fairways (15 of 26) and
greens (19 of 34) against Love. He got away with that because
match play is his forte, his wedge game was sensational and his
putter was hot. That may play in Peoria but not at snazzier
joints such as Augusta National and Shinnecock Hills. Also, Woods
has lost his once-huge distance advantage. His average drive last
year went 290-something yards. So did the average drives of at
least 60 other players.

"Tiger isn't dominating you like before," Love says. "He's not 20
or 30 yards past you on every hole like he used to be. He's
beating you simply because he's better at getting the job done.
That's why I'm so disappointed. I know I could've beaten him.
Tiger knows I could've beaten him. I've never driven it so
perfectly and not pulled it off."

Maybe Love, at 39, ran out of gas after three consecutive 36-hole
days. Or maybe the spectator who kept shouting, "No Love!" during
the final round rattled him. Love snapped at the 23rd tee,
walking 15 yards to the gallery ropes and saying, like a
sixth-grade teacher, "We're not going anywhere until we find out
who said that." Other spectators fingered the culprit, who was
removed. "The guy would time it so that right when I got to my
ball, he'd say, 'No Love!'" Love said. "He tried to make it sound
like 'Go Love!' so nobody would notice. He cost me a hole. I
wasn't going to play again until somebody got kicked out." Love
added that the fan didn't affect him nearly as much as Woods had
on the 25th hole, where Love hit a great drive but lost the hole
when Woods knocked it stiff from out of the trees for an amazing

It was nevertheless a good week for Love. Second place was worth
$700,000 (Woods earned $1.2 million), and he indulged in one of
his guilty pleasures--the three-patty Triple Animal (it's not on
the menu, you have to ask for it) at In-N-Out Burger, the western
U.S. restaurant chain. When play was called on account of rain
last Thursday, Love took his caddie, John (Cubby) Burke, swing
coach Jack Lumpkin and Lumpkin's son, Jay, to the restaurant.
Thomas Bjorn, Phil Mickelson and Loren Roberts were already
there. "Fred Couples started taking us five years ago," Love
said. "Now we've got them scouted. We know where all of them are
between here and San Francisco."

Love and his wife, Robin, returned for dinner on Friday and ran
into David Toms. "It's the last stop on the West Coast swing,"
Love explained. "This is our last chance."

There may be more opportunities this year, though, to take a bite
out of Tiger.

COLOR PHOTO: DENIS POROY/AP NO GO A wild Woods often had to contend with trees, but Love hadhis own struggle with a heckling fan (dark hat).