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Young guns & big names on show at Bay Hill

Mark O'Meara must have felt more like a chaperone today than a former Masters and British Open champion.

In a final practice round for the Bay Hill Invitational, the 43-year-old O'Meara joined up with two players not even half his age -- Sergio Garcia, the 20-year-old from Spain known as "El Nino," and Australian amateur Aaron Baddeley, who turns 19 on Friday.

The other guy in the foursome was the aging Tiger Woods, all of 24.

"When I was 18, I was walking around with my eyes wide," O'Meara said. "I was just trying to get out the way. These guys expect to win."

Sergio Garcia teeing off. Allsport.

They played the front nine of Bay Hill, morning dew still on the grass, as they clowned around between shots that landed frighteningly close to the pin.

Baddeley became the youngest winner in the 95-year history of the Australian Open by beating back challenges from Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman in November. Garcia, a two-time winner on the European Tour last year is making his debut at Bay Hill.

And Woods, who got a scare from Garcia in the PGA Championship last year?

Fresh from a two-week break, he begins in earnest his march to The Masters, always a favorite to win every tournament he plays.

Bay Hill is not exactly a 24-and-under tournament. The field includes seven of the top eight players in the Official World Golf Ranking (David Duval is taking the week off), and features a rare PGA Tour start for the tournament host, Arnold Palmer.

Palmer had not won so much as a U.S. Amateur when he was their age.

"Amazing," Palmer said when asked about how golf keeps getting younger by the minute. "They are very seasoned and very poised for the game, and that does surprise me a little bit that they have reached that point at such an early age."

Nothing Woods does surprises anyone anymore.

After winning or coming in second in four of his first five tournaments this year, Woods returned home to Florida for a week of relaxation and some fine-tuning on his game for a tournament he would love to win.

Two PGA Tour events are played in his adopted home of Orlando, and Woods already has won the Disney Classic twice.

"It would be nice to have both them at the same time," he said. "It would be even more special to win Arnold's tournament, just because he's the King. I've been fortunate enough to win the Byron Nelson and the Memorial (put on by Jack Nicklaus). As prominent as Arnold is, it would be a nice topper."

The defending champion is Tim Herron, who has dropped 20 pounds by trying to lay off sushi and bread -- not to mention cookies. Herron defeated the only other Minnesota native on tour, Tom Lehman, in a sudden-death playoff last year.

Other past champions in the field include Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els.

Palmer has made some minor alterations to the course he owns, such as a new tee box on the par-5 sixth hole that will require a drive over the water, and a little more length on the 438-yard 11th hole.

Woods liked the changes he saw during the pro-am Tuesday and an abbreviated practice round today.

"Bay Hill sets up beautifully for my game," he said. "I'm driving it well, and hopefully I can keep driving it well. This course favors long hitters."

Woods first met Baddeley a couple of weeks ago during the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship. Although the Australian didn't take up the game until he was 12, he made it clear to his father at age 14 that he wanted to play the PGA Tour, and he proved he might have a future with his victory in the Australian Open.

Baddeley made his debut in America last week in the Honda Classic, where he tied for 57th with a 7-under 281.

Is American success only a matter of time? Woods and Garcia won't bet against it.

"Aaron hit the ball very well," Woods said. "I was telling Mark, there's no way I ever hit it that good at 19. I was spraying it all over the lot, just trying to get up and down. I think Aaron has a very bright future ahead of him."

For Garcia, it was the first time he has played a practice round as a professional when he wasn't the youngest player in the group.

"To play out here, you have to just be a good player," Garcia said. "And he is a great player. I think he's going to do good."

Baddeley should consider those encouraging words from a veteran -- even though the "veteran" Garcia just got his driver's license last year.

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