Golf: Woods in pursuit of Love

Star names appear in lights at dress rehearsal for forthcoming major productions
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The Independent Online
THESE have been curious times for golf in America. The two major newsmakers have been Casey Martin and El Nino.

Martin, who was born with a withered leg, went to court to win the right to use a cart on the Nike Tour. Out on the regular US Tour, an ark, not a cart, would be more use. When commissioner Tim Finchem renegotiated the television deals last year, he should have included Court TV and the Weather Channel.

Then there is the fact that the three top players on the world rankings, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Greg Norman, have all won overseas, but not in the States. They might as well not have bothered for all the recognition their wins have received here.

In recent weeks, Scott Simpson, John Huston, Billy Mayfair and Michael Bradley have again demonstrated the strength in depth of the American circuit. But if the Tour has been quietly simmering along, the signs are that, with April around the corner, matters are coming to the boil.

It might have taken three days to complete the first 36 holes of the Bay Hill Invitational, but the final two rounds will feature a final grouping containing three of last year's major champions. The US PGA winner Davis Love, after a day's best 66, and Masters champion Woods share the lead at 10 under, with Els, the US Open champion, two behind in third.

From Orlando, the circuit moves north to the first really big event of the season this week at Jacksonville. The Players' Championship will have one of the best fields of the year, while only two weeks later there is the anticipation of Augusta and the US Masters.

Putting, though overlooked at the time, was a major part of Woods' 12- stroke triumph at Augusta last year and the 22-year-old has been working hard to regain the peak on the greens that he achieved for the first half of last year. But he is not the only one looking to reach a crescendo then.

Despite missing the cut last week, Els has been in fine form this year - five top-three finishes on the European Tour's early season long-haul section - and reckons a best finish of eighth in 1994 undervalues his potential at Augusta.

"I have never really played well on the Florida swing, but that might be about to change," Els said. "The more good golf you play the better heading into the Masters." Love narrowly missed out when Ben Crenshaw won for the second time in 1995.

With Woods hitting only eight greens in regulation in his 70, Els and Love took the opportunity to advance. Both went to the turn in 33, and while the South African stuck there for a 69, Love went on to birdie the 10th, 16th and 18th. Woods put his struggle down to not being comfortable with his swing rather than the strong breeze which sent scoring escalating.

"It was difficult, especially on the back nine, so anything under 70 was a good score," Els said. "Tomorrow will be more a mental challenge than a physical one. You have to be patient."

Here is the chance Els has been waiting for to avenge Woods' victory in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand. Woods came from eight back to win in a play-off there, while Love has twice been a runner-up at Bay Hill. "It's a great pairing," Woods said.

Although the chasing pack starts at five under, it includes two of Europe's finest, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood, who made progress with rounds of 68 and 69 respectively. As a result of the earlier delays, Montgomerie had to miss his daughter Olivia's fifth birthday treat of an outing to Sea World on Friday afternoon. As for another of the local attractions, Wet `n' Wild, Monty reckoned he had already experienced that.

"You have to be able to make things happen," Monty said after his first- round 71 which left him tied with 18 others in 44th place. Conscious that he might still be in danger of missing the cut - as Nick Faldo did with two rounds of 73 - the Scot was looking for a better start than a bogey at the first followed by eight pars.

His luck turned at the 10th, where he holed a 10-footer for the first of four birdies in a row. He added another at the par-five 16th and importantly made two good up-and-downs for pars at the last two holes. At the 18th, his approach finished on the downslope in a bunker, only one foot was in the bunker and water awaited behind the flag.

Landing the ball in the first cut of rough, Monty left his recovery four feet past the hole. "I was looking to make something happen and I started holing some putts when I got a feel for the greens on the back nine," he said.

With no regard for the water at the last, Westwood went for flag with his eight-iron and then holed from six feet for his fourth birdie of the day. "Thirty-six holes today should be an advantage to the young guys," the 24-year-old said.