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Tiger still seeking first Nissan Open victory

Tiger Woods has a couple of streaks going in opposite directions.

The one getting most of the attention is his 2-0 start to 2006, playoff victories in the Buick Invitational and the Dubai Desert Classic that take expectations even higher. The last time he started off a year with two victories was in 2000, which has become his benchmark for dominance.

Making it three in a row means getting rid of another streak that is getting under his skin.

Woods is 0-10 at the Nissan Open, a record that dates to his PGA Tour debut as a 16-year-old amateur when he missed the cut. His record has improved only slightly since he turned professional, although the Nissan Open remains the only PGA Tour event he has played more than three times as a pro without winning.

"I just haven't played my best golf at the right time," Woods said Wednesday. "I've played some good golf, but not my best stuff. And this track, you've got to hit the ball well. You just can't get away with hitting it poorly around here and expect to win."

Not that he hasn't come close.

Woods is part of an All-Star collection of players in the hunt in 1999, the year Ernie Els pulled away from Woods, Davis Love III, David Duval and Nick Price to win by two shots. Woods needed a birdie on the 18th hole to force a playoff, but piped a 3-iron into a beer tent and made bogey.

The Nissan Open also is the site of his only playoff loss in an official tournament, to Billy Mayfair in 1998 when the tournament moved to Valencia Country Club while Riviera's greens were being rebuilt.

Even when Woods was at his best -- 2000 comes to mind -- Riviera knocked him down. He had a stretch from the end of 1999 to the spring of 2000 in which he finished first or second in 10 out of 11 events. The exception, of course, was the Nissan Open, where he tied for 18th.

His next chance starts Thursday, and if his winless streak at his hometown tournament is weighing heavily, Woods isn't saying.

"You don't ever try to force a win," he said. "You just take it as a process. It's 72 holes. You take it a shot at a time, and hopefully at the end of the week, you're on top."

One assumption seems safe -- that it will be 72 holes.

A year ago, players spent five days at Riviera and managed to squeeze in only 36 holes because of rain that turned the fairways into swamps and gave bunkers the literal meaning of "beach." Adam Scott and Chad Campbell were tied for the lead, didn't play Sunday and returned Monday morning for a playoff, which Scott won on the first extra hole.

Because it was only 36 holes, it did not count as an official victory.

California is getting plenty of sunshine these days, however. Coming off a spectacular week at Pebble Beach, the forecast is for mostly dry conditions through Sunday. The course is in great shape, with fairways running fast.

And if a playoff also is in the forecast, perhaps that bodes well for Woods.

Both victories this year went extra holes -- two at Torrey Pines before he outlasted Jose Maria Olazabal, and the 18th hole at Dubai when he beat Ernie Els. In fact, Woods' last four victories went overtime, including the American Express Championship at Harding Park and the Dunlop Phoenix late last year in Japan.

The field at Riviera is stronger than usual. Even without Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen, the Nissan Open boasts 13 of the top 25 in the world ranking.

The welcome sight is Els, who is playing on American soil for the first time since the U.S. Open.

The Big Easy tore ligaments in his left knee during a holiday in the Mediterranean last July. He was the last one to fall off a tube and got tangled up with someone in the water, putting him on crutches and out of golf for four months. Els has played five times since returning in December, winning in South Africa and losing to Woods in Dubai.

Some see Dubai as another failure; it was the seventh time Els has been a runner-up to Woods. But the 36-year-old South African saw it as progress. His knee not quite 100 percent, and he did well to get into the playoff when Els made a 6-foot birdie on the final hole.

"I haven't played with Tiger, or in that kind of a field, for a while. And to play that well and almost win was quite exciting," Els said. "I'm looking forward to the year."

Better yet, Els got his traveling out of the way for now. In the past, he would leave Hawaii for places like Singapore and Australia and the Middle East, then head to Florida to begin his march to the Masters. The two Middle East tournaments were moved up this year, so Els will be in the United States the next two months.

He realizes he is getting older, but has no plans to cut back on his travel. Looking at his record, which includes three majors and six runner-up finishes, he sees no reason to change.

"Up to now, I've had a great career," Els said. "A couple of putts here and there, it could have been a lot better."

At least he has one thing Woods doesn't -- a trophy from the Nissan Open.



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