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Tiger Woods building towards Masters

The road to the Masters usually starts with the Florida swing on the PGA Tour, although Tiger Woods already had a head start even before he arrived at Doral.

He began 2006 with a victory at Torrey Pines, making a birdie on the last hole and winning when Jose Maria Olazabal missed a 4-foot par putt in the playoff. He birdied his last two holes in Dubai to get into a playoff with Ernie Els, winning when the South African found the water.

But his victory on the Blue Monster might have been the best proof that Woods is getting closer to having full command of swing changes he has worked on with Hank Haney the last two years.

It was his 10th wire-to-wire victory among his 48 titles on the PGA Tour. And it was another case of Woods doing whatever was required -- birdies early in his round to keep his two-stroke cushion, back-to-back birdies when David Toms closed within one stroke and a safe shot when a bogey was good enough to win.

After his third victory in five starts this year, Woods was asked about his confidence.

"Pretty high, considering I've put myself there in virtually every event," he said.

Monday's world ranking gave Woods more than double the points over Vijay Singh, the first time his lead has been that large in three years.

Beyond the trophies, however, are the opportunities. And that's where Woods has separated himself from the pack.

Dating to the U.S. Open last year at Pinehurst, Woods has either won or finished second in nine of his last 14 events on the PGA Tour. It is similar, although not quite as pronounced, as the streak he enjoyed at the start of the 2000 season when he won or was runner-up in 10 of 11 tournaments.

"Put it this way," Woods said. "If I hit a couple of bad shots, I feel like it's not the end of the world. I can fit it and I can move on and I can still post a really good number. Before, it would be damage control and somehow try and wheel around it and shoot somewhere around par or even under par. But that's not the case."

Some of his victories have been handed to him when his opponents blinked first. John Daly had a 15-foot birdie putt to win the American Express Championship last October, and three-putted to lose the playoff. Then came the mistakes of Olazabal in the Buick Invitational, and Els in Dubai.

Toms contributed to the cause by three-putting from 60 feet, a tough putt under any circumstance. That allowed Woods to aim away from the water and into a bunker, taking bogey to win by one shot.

But the wins keep piling up, and the mystique is slowly returning.

"You just kind of hope you catch him on an off-week somewhere," Rich Beem said Friday, when he went into the third round one shot out of a four-way tie for the lead that included Woods. "You're not going to beat him. He's like a heavyweight fighter."

Phil Mickelson felt it Saturday.

A year after engaging it a fantastic duel with Woods at Doral, they were in the final pairing Saturday. Neither paid much attention to it because it was only the third round, and because so many players were capable of making a move. But the look on Lefty's face spoke volumes when his 4-iron around the trees on the 18th hole -- Woods called it the best shot he had seen that day -- spun off the green into the water.

Mickelson said after the third round that he wasn't concerned about the pairing, then quickly added, "I should be now. I'm four back."

"He's a tough guy to overcome when he's got the lead," Mickelson said Sunday after putting two balls in the water on consecutive holes and shooting 73.

Woods not only is 34-3 when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead, no one has ever beaten him when starting the final round more than two shots behind.

And while his bogey-bogey finish was sloppy, it wasn't the only time. Along with his bogey-bogey finish in regulation at the Masters last year, he bogeyed two of the last three holes in the 2002 U.S. Open to win by three shots, and he had to two-putt for bogey from 60 feet on the last hole at Firestone to win by one over Mickelson in 1999.

Asked how his victory at Doral will stand out among his other 47 tour victories, Woods talked about various shots he had worked on with Haney.

He found the perfect ball flight of a 4-iron that stopped a foot away on the par-3 fourth in the first round. The arc of his swing, he said, was perfect on two mammoth tee shots at the par-5 eighth.

"I thought one of the coolest shots I hit today -- even though no one realizes this -- is the shot I hit on 8," he said Sunday. "I had 103 yards and I hit a little 9-iron in there. I hit a draw in there, which is hard to do hitting it that soft, held it back up against the flag. That to me is where I'm trying to get to, the ability to hit shots like that on call."

That's where he is headed with the Masters only a month away.

March 7, 2006


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