PGA tourneys hard to handicap

Prepare for wild season

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

MIAMI -- By the time the PGA Tour arrived in Florida last year, Tiger Woods had set the tone for a spectacular season by winning a dramatic playoff in Hawaii and staging an incredible comeback to win at Pebble Beach.

If this year's wild, wild West Coast Swing is any indication, it could be a most unpredictable season.

There were nine winners in nine tournaments, including a guy who wasn't even supposed to be in the field (Steve Stricker) and a player in his first PGA Tour event (Garrett Willis). One playoff was won with a double bogey. Another featured a record six players.

Woods was 0-for-the-West when he boarded his private jet for Dubai, but there were plenty of performances that looked as if they should have been his.

Stricker putted as well as Woods to win the Match Play Championship in Australia. After getting a shot at the $1 million prize only after Woods, David Duval and two dozen others bailed out, Stricker trailed on just nine of the 118 holes he played all week.

Looking for a great finish? Try Davis Love III, who played his first seven holes in 8 under at Pebble Beach and closed with a 63 for his first victory in 34 months, ending a streak of 62 PGA Tour events without winning.

Love broke Woods' record for best closing round by a Pebble Beach champion, and it was the lowest score ever at Pebble when playing the ball down.

Remember that 6-iron Woods hit from 218 yards out of a bunker and over the water and right at the flag to clinch his ninth victory of the season at the Canadian Open? Robert Allenby won the Nissan Open with a shot that might have been even better.

In a six-man playoff, the largest ever on the PGA Tour after 72 holes, Allenby choked down on a 3-wood from 225 yards in a cold, driving rain on one of the toughest closing holes in golf. It never left its line and stopped 5 feet from the hole.

''I was trying to hit the perfect shot, and I came up with it,'' said the 29-year-old Aussie, who kept the Americans from winning every tournament on the West Coast Swing.

Had it been Woods who hit that shot into the 18th at Riviera Country Club, had it been Woods who started his final round birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie at Pebble Beach, Tigermania would have grown even more.

And Woods wouldn't be answering questions about what's wrong with his game.

''I wish I would have won at least something on the West Coast,'' Woods said. ''What really counts is four weeks, and I'll try to get my game ready for those four weeks.''

A year ago, Woods was playing great going into all four majors. His confidence is hardly suffering, but a victory before the Masters wouldn't hurt, or even a week in which he is in serious contention.

While his worst finish this year is a tie for 13th, at both Pebble Beach and Riviera, Woods has yet to finish in the top three this year. That's his longest stretch since he went six straight tournaments out of the top three from Match Play through the Byron Nelson Classic in 1999.

Only once this year has Woods gone into the final round fewer than five strokes out of the lead -- at Torrey Pines, where he finished two strokes out of a playoff.

It's too early in the season to assign any real value to statistics, but one thing is clear: The putts aren't falling with regularity like they did last year. His problem at Riviera was his inability to stuff it close, which could be a sign that Woods is putting more pressure on his iron game to give himself shorter birdie putts.

''My game is slowly but surely coming along,'' Woods promises. ''If you win those four weeks, you've had a pretty good year.''

That's all the West Coast Swing was for Woods -- pretty good.

He wasn't alone. Ernie Els had three good chances to win and came up empty. Losing to Pierre Fulke in the semifinals of Match Play was bad enough. Then, Els went from runaway winner in the Mercedes to an unseemly free fall in the third round.

''Unforgivable,'' he called it.

David Duval, distracted by lawsuits and countersuits with Titleist, played so poorly on the West Coast Swing that he quit early. ''I'm tired of it all,'' he said.

Even the snowboarding was bad at his second home in Idaho. And as a sign of how Duval's year has gone, the day he left the West Coast for a fresh start in Florida, Sun Valley got its best and biggest snowfall of the year.

Duval and Els headline the field at Doral, which offers a $4.5 million purse. The Florida Swing starts the run to the Masters, and if it's anything like the wild, wild West, anything can happen.

So far, just about everything has.

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