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Warren Bennett

Tiger Woods event a good start for 2002

For a silly-season event, Tiger Woods' tournament has a lot more to offer than $1 million to the winner.

Tom Lehman won the inaugural Williams World Challenge two years ago when it was played in Arizona. He won the Phoenix Open a month later, ending a three-year victory drought on the PGA Tour.

Davis Love III won last year at Sherwood Country Club by coming from four strokes behind to beat Woods and Sergio Garcia. Two months later, he came from seven back on the final day to win at Pebble Beach, his first PGA Tour victory in nearly three years.

Coincidence?

``I don't think so,'' Love said. ``I played two rounds with Tiger, two with Sergio. If you beat guys like that, it makes you feel better about your game, and it makes you excited to go back and do it again.

``For me, it got me right out of the gate. I think the Williams had a part in it.''

The $4.1 million tournament, which starts Thursday in the chilly Conejo Valley, could go a long way toward jump-starting someone's season.

Fred Couples and Mark O'Meara, two ``Tiger picks'' in the 18-man field, have not won since 1998. Vijay Singh and Lee Westwood are the only other players at Sherwood who failed to win this year on their home tour.

Maybe they will be next in line to take advantage of the Tiger Omen.

``When you put a pencil in your hand and keep score, it doesn't matter if it's official money or unofficial money,'' Love said. ``If you beat them, it makes you feel better about your game. When a guy wins, his confidence grows and you get on a roll.

``I went out right at the beginning of the year thinking I could play well, rather than wondering what state my game was in. It carried over.''

In that respect, Tiger's tournament is golf's version of spring training.

Half of the field has qualified for the winners-only Mercedes Championships at Kapalua, the first event next year. For those who have taken time off after the Tour Championship, this is a good time to clean out the cobwebs.

Love went five weeks without touching a club and sees this as the start of his '02 season. David Duval came to Sherwood with the new Nike irons. He has had them four days and figures this is a good time to test them in tournament conditions.

Five players in the field are from Europe, and for them it represents what the Williams World Challenge really is -- an end-of-the-year perk for top players. Sixteen players are in the top 32 on the world ranking.

So maybe it's really an All-Star game.

``We have an amazing field this week,'' Woods said. ``It's going to be fun.''

That much was clear Tuesday afternoon as the sun dipped down behind a mountain where they filmed the helicopter from the opening scene in the television series, ``MASH.'' Woods was on the practice green with Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke and Westwood -- cutting up and losing in a putting contest with Bjorn.

Woods is hardly in the middle of his offseason. That was in the fall, when he took off for five weeks -- partly due to the terrorist attacks that canceled three events.

He played as recently as three weeks ago in the Skins Game, heads over to Hawaii in three weeks, down to New Zealand and then plays the California swing.

Refining his swing remains a work in progress.

``I've been working on going back to the basics and getting my fundamentals sound,'' Woods said. ``It's just paying attention to detail. Sometimes we get a little sloppy.''

No detail has escaped him when it comes to his tournament. After Love won last year at Sherwood at 22 under par, Woods instructed the superintendent to grow more rough and increase the speed of the greens.

``We're going to see a golf course that's a little more challenging,'' he said.

Based on the calendar, it's the final event of the year for Woods.

True, his statistics were down from 2000, and so were his victories. Still, he's not about to make any apologies for what he accomplished -- winning the Masters to hold all four majors at the same time, winning The Players Championship and a World Golf Championship, leading the money list, winning the Vardon Trophy and collecting five more titles on the PGA Tour, plus another one in Europe.

``If I can do that the rest of my career, you can write `slump' all you want,'' he said.


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