Woods gains in strength as Arnie weakens

Countdown to the Masters: Bay Hill hat-trick on the cards but event's legendary host admits age is catching up
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It is not without significance that two of the tournaments, outside the major championships, where Tiger Woods finds little difficulty in raising his game are hosted by two of the game's legends. Woods has already won Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament three years in a row and he was intent on a similar feat today at Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational after establishing a four-stroke halfway lead.

What the tournaments share, apart from the iconic status of Jack and Arnie, which Tiger is surely destined to join, are testing courses and highly competitive fields. When Ernie Els, having won at Doral and Dubai in the last two weeks, went to the top of an impressive leaderboard at lunchtime on Friday, Woods responded with his best round of the year to forge ahead.

Although he left the best in his wake, it was Palmer himself who received the most ecstatic reaction on the 18th. He did not return a scorecard but it would have been an 87. He had scored 86 the previous day, already his worst round in the event.

As he walked across the putting green to the clubhouse – his clubhouse – he received a standing ovation. Palmer, known here simply as the "King", waved and smiled, just as he had done on the Swilken Bridge during his last Open at St Andrews in 1995. Then he abdicated.

"It's over," said the 72-year-old. "My golf game has got so lousy. Of course, it's sad but I just get too tired." Palmer will no longer play in the Bob Hope Classic and only played in the Pennsylvania Classic last year because it was staged near to where he grew up. Unless he can be talked round, which has been known in the past, sponsors, promoters and spectators, none of whom care what Palmer scores, will have seen him at a regular PGA Tour event for the last time.

That only leaves Augusta and the Masters, which Palmer has won four times. "This is not the time to make that decision," Palmer said. "Because if it were, the answer would be no. So, I haven't decided yet."

Palmer has advised the Augusta chairman Hootie Johnson on the course lengthening and toughening measures taken over the last year. He did not think it inappropriate for Johnson to write to the likes of Charles Coody and Billy Casper suggesting they called it a day. There will be no "Dear Arnie" letter, but next month could be his last appearance among the Georgia pines.

Palmer won the old Florida Citrus Open in 1971 and then brought the tournament across Orlando to the course he owned at Bay Hill in 1979. Now, with the Players' Championship which follows at Sawgrass this week, the event plays a crucial part in sharpening appetites for the Masters. In the year-long season that is golf, this is where it gets serious.

So, too, Woods. What has returned over the last few days here is his ability to block out all distractions. A helicopter circling above was not a problem on Thursday: "I grew up on a military base." Nor the incessant mobile phones, which in this country is a problem which does not disappear once the phone has been answered due to the conversational tone being only just below a piercing shout. Still, "I'm on the 11th green with Tiger," has a certain cachet compared to "I'm on the train."

Also absent for Woods are the bogeys – and worse – that littered his early season performances. Until the eighth hole on Friday, his 17th, he had not dropped a shot for 76 holes, dating back to the Genuity Championship at Doral.

While he scrambled from the fringes successfully on Thursday, Woods, with the exception of that one hole, was back to his best in Friday's 65. He moved five clear of Els, who had earlier returned a 67, and only Scott McCarron, the runner-up to Kevin Sutherland in the World Matchplay at La Costa last month, got a shot closer.

The round equalled Tiger's lowest of the season but, in the manner in which it was compiled, he agreed it was his best so far this year. "It's getting better as the things I've been working on are starting to come together," Woods said.

Woods moved to Orlando from California when he turned professional in 1996 and is now more comfortable on the Bermuda grass greens in his adopted home state – seven top-threes in his last eight starts and four wins – than back on the west coast. "It is nice to be on greens where you are rewarded for good putts," he said. "If the greens are soft you can slop it around and shoot something in the high 60s but not when they are as firm as this."

Not far off the top were Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia, while Paul McGinley and Niclas Fasth, who finished a runner-up to Els in Dubai, made the cut with plenty of room to spare. Sandy Lyle, in a rare appearance, just made it to the weekend but Lee Westwood did not and will have more treatment on the shoulder that has been troubling him for three weeks.

If Palmer was the oldest man in the field, Ty Tryon, at 17, was the youngest. Tryon, who will not leave the nearby Dr Phillips High School until May next year, lives two blocks away from Bay Hill but missed his fourth cut in four attempts. "I am not hacking it around," Tryon insisted. "One of these rounds, something is going to click."