Woods out to equal legends of the 1920s

Andy Farrell,Florida
Thursday 20 March 2003 01:00

Tiger Woods rarely lets the opportunity to make history slip through his fingers. By finishing a mere fourth at the NEC World Invitational last August, the world No 1 failed to win the event for a fourth successive year. No matter. Woods has another chance here at the Bay Hill Invitational.

Should things not go according to plan, and Ernie Els has other ideas, Tiger could make it third time lucky at the Memorial tournament in June. Only Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, two of the game's legends from the 1920s, have won a US Tour event four years running.

Woods has made this tournament his own in recent years partly because it is here that the season starts to get serious. Next week is the Players' Championship, and it is less than a month to the Masters at Augusta.

With protesters campaigning against the club's all-male membership, and protesters protesting against the protesters, Woods said the Masters has been "tarnished" this year. But he will not worry should he win at Augusta for a fourth time in all, and a third in a row.

Once Tiger gets the scent for a course, he does not like to let go. "When I'm out there on the golf course it makes you feel pretty good that you've won three times and done it different ways," he said.

Other factors apply at Bay Hill. The course is owned, and the event hosted, by Arnold Palmer. At the age of 73 not only has Palmer gone back on his pledge to retire from his own tournament but dragged the 63-year-old Jack Nicklaus back as well.

Then there is the convenience for many players of staying at home, a rare luxury. Els has his caddie, Ricci Roberts, cooking for him this week as the family are now ensconced at Wentworth. Els was with them last week and hurt his right wrist on a punchbag he has in the garage to "take out his frustrations on".

Els would not elaborate on the particular frustration that day but he was as annoyed as the phlegmatic South African ever gets after losing the Dubai Classic to the unknown Robert-Jan Derksen. The world No 2 has been in astonishing form, winning four of his six strokeplay events this year and finishing only a stroke behind in the other two. Should he be defeated here the winner is likely to be better established than the Dutchman, or China's Lian-Wei Zhang, his only conquerors to date.

With Woods winning two of his first three events following knee surgery, including the World Matchplay at La Costa, the prologue has been intriguing. A Woods-Els showdown has been widely anticipated and the hope is that both continue at their high standards.

Five years ago Els defeated Woods and Davis Love over 36 holes on the final day to win the huge sword is awarded to the victor. Then Els trailed his opponents off the tee, but out-putted them. He is much longer these days, a valuable asset on a course loved by the modern big hitters.

Asked whether he was closing the gap on Tiger, Els said: "The more you win, I think the more you close the gap a little bit. But he's come out and he's won himself so it's hard to say. I know his big goals are to win majors and so are mine, so I think that's probably where you're going to measure the gap closing or not.

"In regular tour events, if you're on your game you can go flat-out, but leading up to the Masters, you're tinkering with your game a little bit here and there and you're working on some shots. Although you want to win, it's the majors where you're going to hang everything out.

"I just feel that if I don't step up now, I probably will never."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments