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Woods on march towards Masters

Tiger Woods was on the first tee before sunrise Wednesday, a 6:20 start to his final practice round for The Players Championship without knowing how long it would last.

“I’m going to play nine holes and then evaluate,” he said as he walked to the sixth tee.

What’s to evaluate?

Woods not only has won three of the four PGA Tour events he has played this year, he’s winning with ease.

The fairways look wide. The pins look accessible. The hole looks huge.

He won the Bay Hill Invitational by 11 strokes despite a nasty case of food poisoning. That sent a resounding message that could not be ignored by the world-class field gathered this week at the TPC at Sawgrass.

“Very ominous last week,” Colin Montgomerie said. “Very ominous.”

Everything is geared toward Augusta National in two weeks, when Woods will try to become the first player to win the Masters three years in a row.

Woods won the green jacket last year by building a lead and letting everyone else make mistakes down the stretch.

Not much has changed in his victories this year.

“I can’t imagine him playing much better than he is right now, but we say that every year, don’t we?” Scott Hoch said. “Guys who get in contention with him feel they have to do something extra, instead of playing their game.

“They get out of their comfort zone, and there’s usually not a good ending to it.”

The Players Championship is the next best thing to a major, and despite the absence of Ernie Els (injured wrist) and Phil Mickelson (birth of child), it might be more difficult to win.

Sawgrass doesn’t favor any particular player. The Players Championship has been won in recent years by the power of David Duval, the accuracy of Hal Sutton, the streak putting of Justin Leonard and the all-around game of Woods.

It even found room for a good story line last year when Craig Perks, No. 203 in the world ranking, chipped in twice on the last three holes in an eagle-birdie-par finish.

The course figures to play a little longer that usual, at least at the start of the tournament, because of 13 inches of rain during the last month.

No matter the condition of the course, the focus is squarely on Woods.

“Guys talk about it because it’s pretty amazing what he can do,” David Toms said.

Toms was among his victims this year. He overcame a bout with food poisoning at the Match Play Championship to reach the finals, and nearly overcame a five-hole deficit before Woods put him away on the 35th hole.

One thing Toms noticed about that final match was the mental side of Woods’ game, which doesn’t always get enough credit.

“I’ve never seen him where I didn’t think he was prepared for the shot he was about to hit,” Toms said. “If you play with other guys, there’s indecision. You can just see it. There’s indecision whether it’s what club they’re pulling or what kind of swing they want to put on it, if they want to hit a fade, hit a draw, how they want to approach the hole.

“It seems like he has a plan. He probably does that better that most players. Plus, he thinks he’s supposed to win. He does it all the time, so it’s second nature to him.”

Heading into the first big stretch of the year, there is a feeling Woods is on the verge of another great season. In 2000, he won nine times, including three straight majors, and shattered the scoring average.

Montgomerie caused a stir at The Players Championship that year by saying that whenever Woods got off to a good start, everyone knew he was playing for second.


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