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Rough the challenge at Bay Hill

Tiger Woods and the rest of a star-laden field at the Bay Hill Invitational can expect to see some extra length at Arnold Palmer's course.

Only this has nothing to do with yardage, typical of so many courses trying to challenge big hitters.

It's the length of the grass.

Palmer was positively beaming Wednesday morning when he talked about the Bay Hill Club being in the best shape it has ever been, especially rough that was thick enough for grazing.

"Of course," Palmer said, turning to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, "the PGA Tour is trying to accommodate the players, continue to cut it down."

"It's going to be like that, is it?" Finchem jokingly replied.

The rough is no joke.

Tour officials recently set the mower height to 3 1/2 inches, which Palmer accepted because he doesn't think it will make stray tee shots any easier to hit.

Woods played for the first time in a year during his pro-am round and couldn't agree more.

"It's certainly a little more lush than we're used to seeing," he said. "I think it's hit or miss whether you get a good lie, because the rough is a little bit higher and thicker this year."

So high and thick that he can't advance a 9-iron?

"I can hit 9-iron out," Woods said. "How far? It's a different story."

Woods will be trying to continue building his momentum toward the Masters when the Bay Hill Invitational starts Thursday under what is expected to be dry conditions. He already has won three times in five starts this year, two of those on the PGA Tour and once in Dubai on the European tour.

Bay Hill brings good vibes, a place where he won four straight times until his streak was broken in 2003. He also won the first of three straight U.S. Junior Amateur titles at Bay Hill, despite hitting his drive out-of-bounds on the 18th with a 1-up lead, winning in extra holes.

"It's one of those golf courses that fits your eye," Woods said, a phrase he also throws around at Torrey Pines, where he won this year for the fourth time. "Not too many golf courses you play all year that you have that happen, but this is certainly one of those for me."

Another one is three weeks away at Augusta National, where Woods will be going after a fifth green jacket. He played Augusta on Sunday with Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, and said the extra length on six holes made the home of the Masters as tough as advertised.

But the Masters can wait.

First up is competing against a top-heavy field at Bay Hill, which includes Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia. The only player missing from the top six is former Bay Hill champion Phil Mickelson.

Els won Bay Hill in 1998, blowing past Woods and Davis Love III while playing with them in a 36-hole Sunday. That was his only chance to win here, and the Big Easy isn't sure why.

It didn't take him long to notice the thick grass lining the fairways, and Els had no complaints.

"If you hit the ball a long way, you should be reasonably accurate," he said. "Not one player on tour has the philosophy of just going out and hitting all over the place. It might work out that way, but we try and aim and get it in the fairway and give yourself the best opportunity to make birdie."

It looks that way at times, especially considering the driving statistics.

Woods is hitting 47.9 percent of his fairways, which puts him at No. 179 in driving accuracy. The feeling is that big hitters blast away, believing it's easier to hit the green with a wedge in the rough than a 7-iron from the fairway.

But that isn't always the case.

Woods had a solid week off the tee at Doral, even if the statistics don't bear that out. He rarely missed the wrong side of a fairway, sometimes dribbling into the first cut or barely into the rough, but usually leaving himself the perfect angle to approach the pin.

He and his caddie, Steve Williams, went over his drives and found that Woods was in the first cut 13 times.

"If you add that into the fairway mix, it's not that bad," Woods said. "So it depends on your perspective. I feel like I'm driving the ball much better now than I was earlier in the year, because things we've been working on are starting to come together."

Whether he can escape the rough at Bay Hill remains to be seen.

Palmer said the course is no different from what he plays with members. The greens are quick without running at warp speed. The fairways have ample room, although they aren't as generous as a resort course.

"The members play the same golf course as the pros, with that one exception -- the rough is going to be 4 inches," Palmer said. "We topped it at 3 1/2 , and we're not cutting it anymore."

Kenny Perry won a rain-soaked Bay Hill Invitational last year at 12-under par, a winning score that Palmer found reasonable. If scoring gets out of hand, he still has a few options.

"We'll watch the scores this week, let the rough grow up a little bit, let the greens get a little faster and a little harder, and see what happens," he said.

March 16, 2006


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