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Sunday, March 23, 2003
Updated: March 25, 6:37 PM ET
How good is Tiger? Quite possibly better than ever

By David Lefort
ESPN.com

You heard it here first: Tiger Woods is going to win The Masters -- and he just might take the Players Championship on his way to Augusta.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods has all the weapons, but so far in 2003 no one's been up to the task of challenging him.

What? You already figured that out on your own? Well, I guess it doesn't take a genius (or a member of the golf media) to tell you what should be obvious to anyone who's been paying attention the last month and a half:

Tiger is good.

How good, you ask?

So good he makes the rest of the PGA Tour players look like they should be selling encyclopedias.

Take his performance Sunday at Bay Hill, for example. Playing in a driving rainstorm and with a nasty case of food poisoning that had him heading for the bushes on more than a few occasions, Woods not only maintained his five-stroke lead, he more than doubled it. His 11-stroke victory is the largest winning margin in tournament history.

So good that he did something that hasn't been done in 73 years -- win an event the past four times he played it. So good he leads the money list despite giving the rest of the PGA Tour a five-week head start while recovering from knee surgery.

Even Ernie Els -- dubbed Woods' next threat after winning four of his first six events this year and finishing runner-up in the other two -- was no match for Tiger this week. The Big Easy took the clubhouse lead after a second-round 65, but dropped to a tie for 38th after an awful 72-77 weekend.

Woods is so good no one in his right mind would pick anyone but him to take home the green jacket in April.

So good there's nothing left to write -- until next week.

Surprise!
Trevor Immelman held a share of the first-round lead after an opening 69, but became the first player in the 25-year history of the Bay Hill Invitational to miss the cut after leading after 18 holes.

The 23-year-old South African made two quadruple-bogeys by hitting two balls into the water on No. 18 and No. 6, and he finished the second round with an 80, missing the cut by a stroke.
Quotable
''It's a great way to lose weight, I'll tell you that.''
-- Tiger Woods, joking after the final round about the illness that had him heading for the bushes on several occasions.
The number

4
The number of times Tiger Woods has won a PGA Tour event by more than 10 strokes.
Around the tours

This week:
Bay Hill Invitational
Site:
Orlando, Fla.
Course:
Bay Hill Club and Lodge (7,027 yards, par 72)
Top finishers:
1 Tiger Woods (-19)
T2 Kirk Triplett
T2 Kenny Perry
T2 Brad Faxon
T2 Stewart Cink


This week:
Safeway Ping
Site:
Phoenix, Ariz.
Course:
Moon Valley Country Club (6,473 yards, par 72)
Top finishers:
1 Se Ri Pak (-23)
2 Grace Park
T3 Hee-Won Han
T3 Patricia Meunier-Lebouc
T3 Annika Sorenstam


This week:
Toshiba Senior Classic
Site:
Newport Beach, Calif.
Course:
Newport Beach Country Club (6,598 yards, par 72)
Top finishers:
1 Rodger Davis (-16)
2 Larry Nelson
T3 Jose Maria Canizares
T3 Hale Irwin
T3 John Jacobs


This week:
Madeira Island Open
Site:
Santo da Serra, Madeira Islands
Course:
Santo da Serra Golf Club (6,664 yards, par 72)
Top finishers:
1 Bradley Dredge (-16)
T2 Fredrik Andersson
T2 Brian Davis
T2 Andrew Marshall
5 Sam Little


This week:
No event
Next event:
Louisiana Open (March 27-30)

Five observations
1. Those of you who forgot the LPGA Tour wasn't all-Annika, all-the-time were given a reminder Sunday at the Safeway Ping.

Se Ri Pak, who won five events last year to establish herself as the second-best women's golfer on the planet, fired a final-round 8-under 64 to wrestle the lead away from Sorenstam and win her first title of 2003.

Sorenstam, meanwhile, couldn't get anything going in Phoenix. She had a bogey-free 71, but made just one birdie. It was her worst score of the week, and the third-place finish starts her season on a bit of a sour note.

Sorenstam played with her usual consistency, hitting 62 of the 72 greens in regulation (86 percent), and averaged a whopping 286.9 yards off the tee. Where she had trouble, however, was on the greens. Sorenstam took 120 putts -- 32 in the final round -- compared to Pak's 112.

''I think I played well. It was one of those days I just had a lot of lip-outs,'' Sorenstam said Sunday. ''That's golf. If you play golf long enough you know these things happen.''

Could Pak give Sorenstam -- who looks like she's bulked up again in the offseason -- a run for the top spot on the LPGA Tour in 2003? Time will tell, but it wouldn't come as a shock.

2. The long-awaited head-to-head meeting between Woods and Els finally happened Saturday at Bay Hill, but it was a huge disappointment for fans of PGA Tour parity.

The player who's supposed to be the next Frazier to Tiger's Ali went to the mat early Saturday. Paired with Woods in the final group, Els began the third round four strokes back, but was eight back after just six holes and 10 behind heading into Sunday.

After the round, Els sounded like a man beaten, following in a long line of defenseless rivals who can only shrug their shoulders after yet another thrashing.

"He's still the man,'' Els said. "Tiger just did his thing. He was relentless today.''

Sound familiar? Phil Mickelson expressed similar sentiments after being thoroughly beaten by Woods in the final round of the Buick Invitational, site of Tiger's 2003 debut.

''He's just a very impressive player,'' Mickelson said. ''It isn't easy to step in and out of competition, and he never gives anything back. I knew I was fighting an uphill battle.''

In the end, Els finished almost 20 shots behind Tiger in what was by far his worst performance in a stroke-play event this season.

In Ernie's defense, we probably didn't see him at his best. A sore wrist likely affected the Big Easy's game this week.

Let's hope that's the case, anyway.

3. Bay Hill gave players fits in the first round Thursday, as swirling winds, high temperatures and rock-hard greens kept the red numbers at a minimum. The 3-under leading score was the highest since the U.S. Open last year at Bethpage Black.

''If we get no rain, it should be awesome by the weekend,'' Woods said Thursday. ''If these greens get baked out, if this wind stays up, it could be one of the tougher golf courses we'll face, except for the majors.''

No such luck.

The rain came Friday, and the course changed completely.

The approach shots that bounced off the greens in the first round began to stick on the soggy putting surfaces, and the slower fairways transformed the course into a playground for the long bombers, who no longer had to worry about their drives rolling into the rough.

While just 19 players managed to break par in the first round, 57 did so in the second round. Forty-three players were in red numbers in the third round Saturday, and that after the field was reduced by 39. The number went back down to 18 for the final round Sunday, but the driving rainstorm can probably take most of the credit for that.

Still, Bay Hill played a lot tougher than most of the tracks the pros have played this year. Woods was the only player in double digits under par, and only the Nissan Open at Riviera had fewer players in red numbers.

Jack Nicklaus
Nicklaus

Arnold Palmer
Palmer

4. We'll likely look back at the 2003 Bay Hill Invitational as the final PGA Tour event Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus played in together, though both had forgettable performances.

Tournament host Palmer, 73, went 87-85 to post the highest score of the tournament, but enjoyed himself nonetheless. He even got a kick out of all the players' complaints on how hard the course played during the first round Thursday.

Nicklaus, however, wasn't having any fun. Trying to gauge whether he should play in his 44th Masters, Nicklaus followed a first-round 82 with a 76 Saturday to miss the cut by a mile. A frustrated Jack didn't talk to reporters Thursday after two triple-bogeys and one double-bogey in his final six holes, but said Friday he'd play Augusta sometime in the next couple weeks and decide on The Masters after that.

5. After a record 18 players earned their maiden victories on the PGA Tour last year, there hasn't been a single first-time winner yet in 2003.

The trend, however, has picked up on the Champions Tour. Rodger Davis became the fourth first-time winner in seven events on the 50-and-over circuit, earning his first victory in the United States at the Toshiba Senior Classic.

Just two weeks ago, Davis was one of five players robbed at gunpoint in a restaurant following the first round of the MasterCard Classic in Mexico City.

Hale Irwin, who won four times last year and is still looking for his first victory in 2003, finished third at the Toshiba. It was his third top-three finish of the year in six events, and lifted him to second on the money list.

What it means for ...
Aaron Baddeley: The young Aussie had his second-best showing of the year at Bay Hill, finishing sixth. He was consistent all week (69-70-70-72) and held up well under tough conditions in the final round.

Ty Tryon
Tryon

Ty Tryon: The 18-year-old did a lot more than make his first cut in six tries, he gave himself a shot at keeping his tour card for 2004. Tryon jumped from a tie for 28th to a tie for 10th at Bay Hill with a final-round 69, earning by far the biggest paycheck of his career: $93,375. Because he was granted a medical extension this year, he needs to earn the equivalent of 125th place on money list ($515,445) last year to keep his card for next year.

Vijay Singh: In his first event since early February, Singh, who missed five weeks with a rib injury, finished a respectable 20th at Bay Hill. He's still a bit rusty, but he's got two more weeks to work it out before The Masters.

Up next ...
PGA Tour: Players Championship
Players head east in Florida to the TPC at Sawgrass, site of the "fifth major" and the last big tune-up for The Masters. It features the toughest field in golf year in and year out, and could give us a clue as to who to keep an eye on at The Masters.

LPGA Tour: Kraft Nabisco Championship
The season is just two weeks old, but the LPGA Tour has its first major this week in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Annika Sorenstam, coming off her disppointing final round in Phoenix, is the defending champion.

Nationwide Tour: Louisiana Open
The junior circuit heads stateside for the first time in 2003 after a two-week hiatus.

David Lefort is ESPN.com's golf editor, and can be reached at david.m.lefort@espn3.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.