Golf: Rejuvenated Woods bars Faldo's path

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The Independent Online
AS KEEN as the organisers were to bring together, for the first time, all the leading 64 players in the world for a matchplay tournament, there is a considerable and intriguing consolation for Jumbo Ozaki's reluctance to emerge from the Japanese tour's winter hibernation. In next Wednesday's first round of the Andersen Consulting World Match Play Championship, Tiger Woods, the world No 1, is now likely to face a man who once held that crown for 81 consecutive weeks, Nick Faldo.

Woods has been under threat at the top of the rankings from fellow American David Duval but replied in thrilling style by winning his first tournament for nine months at the Buick Invitational on Sunday. Meanwhile, Faldo, after missing the cut in the Desert Classic, had a long wait in his Dubai hotel room before discovering he had retained his place at 65th.

Having slipped a place on each of the previous three weeks, Faldo had others to thank for retaining the first alternate's spot on a dramatic day's golf played out around the globe. Per-Ulrik Johansson and Andrew Coltart both lost their chance of overtaking the six-times major champion despite playing all four rounds at Dubai Creek.

At the Australian Masters in Melbourne, Greg Turner needed to finish third either on his own or with one other but ended in a three-way tie. Then, 12 hours later in California, David Toms had a putt on the last to tie for seventh, the mark he needed to reach 65th place. "I gather Nick was pacing his room all day long," said IMG's Tony Greer, whose computer works out the world rankings.

Faldo yesterday abandoned Plan B of playing in the Qatar Masters, returned to London and was intending to head for San Diego as soon as possible to acclimatise after the 12-hour time change from the Middle East.

Assuming the 52-year-old Ozaki, ranked 14th in the world, is the only player to pass up the chance of playing in the new pounds 3m event at La Costa where even first round losers will receive pounds 15,000, the provisional draw shows 11 ties with European interest and no easy matches for the five Britons involved.

Lee Westwood, who has moved up to No 5 in the world, plays Argentina's Eduardo Romero with the winner to meet either Greg Norman or John Cook. Colin Montgomerie will face the San Diegan Craig Stadler, while Ian Woosnam plays Scot Hoch and Darren Clarke takes on Andrew Magee.

Faldo may share the record for most singles wins in Ryder Cup matches, but has not won a tournament in almost two years. Woods claimed his 10th victory in two and half years as a professional by scoring 17 under par on the weekend at the Buick Invitational. His 62 in the third round was his lowest as a pro while the 23-year-old responded to being caught by Billy Ray Brown with two holes to play on Sunday with an eagle on the last at Torrey Pines.

Giving a glimpse of the player who burst onto the golfing stage in a blaze of attacking golf, Woods followed up a huge drive by hitting a seven- iron to 15 feet at the par-five 18th. Brown, who played a three-iron for his second, almost found the water short of the green and after he had failed to chip and putt for a birdie, Woods holed his for a two-stroke win.

Better fortune on the greens was all that was holding Woods back from ending his winless drought earlier and now he is ominously running into form for a stretch which sees the World Match Play, the Players' Championship and the US Masters all within seven weeks.

"My game is coming together at exactly the right time for the world championship," said the 1997 Masters champion. "I hit a lot of great putts today. Basically, that's the story of the entire week."


PROVISIONAL DRAW: T Woods v N Faldo, T Watson v R Tway, J Parnevik v C Parry, P Stewart v S Cink, V Singh v R Mediate, B Langer v B Faxon, J Maggert v F Funk, N Price v F Minoza, L Westwood v E Romero, G Norman v J Cook, P Mickelson v N Ozaki, L Janzen v G Day, S Hoch v I Woosnam, F Couples v D Hart, J Sluman v B Jobe, D Love v S Pate, M O'Meara v M Bradley, J M Olazabal v B Mayfair, S Elkington v S Jones, T Lehman v S Verplank, C Montgomerie v P Azinger, J Huston v B Estes, J Furyk v P Sjoland, M Calcavecchia v C Franco, S Stricker v S Maruyama, J Leonard v M A Jimenez, H Sutton v L Roberts, E Els v C Stadler, B Watts v T Bjorn, D Clarke v A Magee, S Appleby v B Glasson, S Leaney v D Duval.