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Tiger Woods favourite at Bay Hill

Four-times champion Tiger Woods goes into this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Florida as favourite, despite playing only two PGA Tour events this year.

He triumphed in his first start, clinching the Buick Invitational by two shots, and was in the hunt for his eighth consecutive PGA Tour title at last month's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship until he lost in the third round.

The world number one came close to pulling off a Houdini-like escape against Australia's Nick O'Hern in a gripping encounter at Dove Mountain but missed a four-foot birdie putt for victory on the 19th green.

Although Woods has taken two weeks off since, his success rate at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge is second to none and he will also enjoy the added benefit of home comforts.

"Arnold has meant so much to this game and I always enjoy competing in his tournament," Woods said on his official website. "Plus I've had good success at Bay Hill."

The 31-year-old American, who lives about 10 minutes from the course, reeled off four consecutive wins there from 2000, including victory by a record margin of 11 strokes in 2003.

He will be making his 11th successive appearance at an event where he has never missed the cut and is the leading money winner with $2.9 million.

Held at Palmer's club since 1979, it has been unofficially described as "Arnie's tournament" for more than two decades and attracts one of the strongest fields of the season.

Apart from Woods, six other members of the world's top 10 are playing, and 12 of the leading 15.

World number two Jim Furyk withdraw last week because of a sore left wrist but third-ranked Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson (five), Ernie Els (six), Geoff Ogilvy (seven), Retief Goosen (eight) and Vijay Singh (nine) are all in the field.

Swede Stenson, who will make his debut in the event, is riding the crest of a golfing wave, having won back-to-back titles at the European Tour's Dubai Desert Classic and the Accenture Match Play Championship.

One major difference for the players since last year is the change of the Bay Hill layout from a par-72 to a par-70, with the yardage reduced from 7,267 to 7,137.

"It's something I've been thinking about for a few years now, and I figured it was time, simply because the game is progressing along," Palmer said.

"Most of the guys are hitting irons into 16, and that will now play a par-four anyway. I think this will make it more interesting for the overall tournament in relation to par."

Australia's Rod Pampling will defend the title he won last year by a stroke from Britain's Greg Owen in a scrappy finish.

Englishman Owen, chasing his first PGA Tour victory, had been one ahead with two holes to play before finishing double-bogey, bogey.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational, the third event on the 2007 Florida Swing, starts on Thursday.


March 14, 2007

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