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Tiger aiming to be in contention every Sunday

The ball landed in the 5-foot space between the flag and the corporate billboard on the green 150 yards away, just as he was asked to do.

Tiger Woods was just getting warmed up.

For his next trick, he told 500 people crammed into the bleachers on a cool Monday morning that he would hook his 4-iron around a flagstick on the far right of the La Costa Resort practice range and reach the green at the back left, some 200 yards away.


Before long, Woods was bombing his driver over the 40-foot high fence at the back of the range, even choosing the spot it would clear. Had cars still been parked behind the range, he would have said something like this: "White convertible, front left tire."

Halfway through the hour-long exhibition the day after losing to Darren Clarke in the final of the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship, Woods hit another laser and moaned into his mike, "Where was that swing yesterday?"

The swing he brought to the afternoon round of the 36-hole final wasn't nearly good enough to stop the onslaught of birdies produced by Clarke in a rousing 4 and 3 victory that denied Woods a third straight World Golf Championship title.

It might not have mattered, anyway. Clarke missed only one fairway, which led to his only bogey. He hit 25 of 33 greens in regulation and made 12 birdies in just 33 holes.

It was a performance that can win anywhere against anybody, the kind most people have come to expect out of Woods. And it proved what Davis Love III said a couple of weeks ago, when Woods was going for his seventh straight PGA Tour victory.

"I don't think he's going to win every one of them the rest of his career," Love said. "I'm fairly confident he won't."

The only thing anyone can bank on is that when Tiger contends, everyone wins.

Television ratings were higher for his near-comeback in the Buick Invitational than the NBA All-Star game. Overnight ratings from the Match Play Championship were up 40 percent on Sunday and 36 percent on Saturday compared with the previous year, when Woods was already eliminated.

"Tiger is doing something to the game," Scott Hoch said. "He's helping all of us."

This "losing streak" Woods is on -- three whole tournaments without winning -- somehow makes his streak of six straight PGA Tour victories even more impressive. There's a reason no one had won that many in a row in 52 years.

Two tournaments in San Diego in a span of three weeks, the Buick Invitational and Match Play, showed just how difficult it is for everything to fall into place on any given Sunday.

One bad swing, one bad kick, one slight turn away from the hole, and Woods's streak would never have reached six.

He also showed how easily it could have been nine and counting.

Woods will take two weeks off before returning at the Bay Hill Invitational to begin his run to The Masters. He may not win. Odds are, however, he will be within striking distance on Sunday.

And that remains the most impressive streak of all.

When he tied for 18th in the Nissan Open, his worst finish in a stroke-play tournament in nearly a year, Woods started the final round just three strokes behind.

Even when Clarke took a commanding lead, 4 up with eight holes to play, Woods didn't count himself out until he missed a birdie putt on the par-3 14th.

"In a stroke-play event, Darren would have run away with it," Woods said. "But in match play, I was right there. And that's the beauty of it, that you can go out there and struggle and still have a chance to win."

That, in essence, is the beauty of Woods. He can struggle and still have a chance to win.

Only once in his last 20 stroke-play tournaments has Woods been more than five strokes out of the lead going into the final round.

He has finished in the top three in 40 percent of his 75 PGA Tour events, a rate that goes up to a staggering 47 percent including all his tournaments around the world. When Jack Nicklaus stopped playing a full PGA Tour schedule in 1986, he recorded top-three finishes in 35 percent of his tournaments.

Woods's primary goal is to break Nicklaus's records, particularly the 18 professional majors that the Golden Bear won. What makes that feasible is the way he answered a question from a man in the bleachers toward the end of the exhibition at La Costa.

The man wanted to know what Woods enjoyed best during the streak.

"Being there on Sunday," Woods replied, "with a chance to win."

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