Woods Better Ready for Players

By Mercer BaggsMarch 25, 2003, 5:00 pm
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The virus is still lingering, but Tiger Woods has made his way to The Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass, which is enough to make the rest of the field sick.
 
Woods drove up from his Orlando home Monday night and played a quick nine holes with former college teammate Notah Begay Tuesday morning.
 
But its not like he needs the practice.
 
Woods has won three events in four starts since returning from knee surgery, including last weeks Bay Hill Invitational.
 
How much better can he get?
 
Id like to find out, he said.
 
Tiger not only became the first man in 73 years to win the same tournament on four consecutive occasions, he did so by 11 strokes ' and while battling food poisoning stemming from a bad plate of pasta the night before.
 
Woods spent most of that miserable final round ' played under a constant downpour ' resting on his golf bag or down on his knees. However, when he was upright ' and not doubled over with the dry-heaves ' he was making two birdies, one eagle and no bogeys.
 
Woods wont need to wear himself out practicing on the TPC layout. He won here in 2001, and claimed his first of three straight U.S. Amateur titles here, in 1994.
 
Tuesday, in his quick tour, he played in ideal conditions ' no clouds, no wind and very few followers.
 
The fairways are wet, and the greens are a little bit slow, he assessed. The guys will always go low if theres no wind. But if the wind picks up its going to be pretty difficult.
 
'This is the toughest golf course we'll play all year, especially if the wind blows.'
 
The Ponte Vedra area has recently been beseiged by rain. Course crews finally got a chance Monday to trim the rough down to four inches. Forecasters call for the possibility of more rain Wednesday, and perhaps Saturday. But the sun is expected to me more dominant than it was a week ago. And if the gusts are up anything can happen, particularly over the final three holes.
 
Thats where all the drama unfolds, Woods said of the final stretch. No matter how big a lead you have, its not quite big enough going down the last two holes.
 
This is the 30th playing of this event. The purse is a solid $6 million, with $1,080,000 going to the champion.
 
The field includes 47 of the top 50 players on the Official World Golf Ranking. Ernie Els (ranked No. 2), Phil Mickelson (No. 3) and Thomas Bjorn (No. 48) are the exceptions. Els withdrew due to a wrist injury, Mickelson because his wife gave birth Sunday to their third child. Bjorn pulled out because his wife is due to give birth to twins in the near future.
 
But despite the elite field and enormous purse ' and its label as the Fifth Major, this is not a major championship. Should it be?
 
No, I dont think so, said Woods.
 
I think its probably the highest tournament in the world next to the majors. I dont think it ranks up there in a majors category now.
 
Reasons why not? History for one, says Woods: Theres so much history behind the others.
 
And scheduling another. Woods pointed out that it would be implausible to have one major within two weeks of another.
 
If you make this a major youve got to move it back and move the Florida Swing. Its just a convenient little stretch where you move right up the coast. Youd have to move everything around, he said.
 
For now, there are only four major championships, meaning Woods will treat this event differently than he would the Masters in two weeks.
 
Generally, I dont play the week before a major except for the Buick Open in Flint (prior to the PGA Championship). Thats the only time I ever play before a major, he said.
 
Of course, Woods always plays the week before The Players, and always wins ' at least for the last four years, anyway.
 
The last time he won three times before The Players was 2000. You remember that season: nine tour wins, the first three legs of his Tiger Slam, and only three finishes outside the top-5 all year.
 
I feel just as good as I did in 2000, he said after winning Bay Hill. Its very similar.
 
The sound of that will certainly make a tour player feel like he just ate a bad batch of spaghetti.
 
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