GTE Byron Nelson Classic
GTE Byron Nelson Classic
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All the attention on Tiger Woods

Watching the speed of the swing and the awesome power it produced led Byron Nelson to believe Tiger Woods might win a lot of tournaments.

Maybe not 18 in one year or 11 in a row, which is what Nelson accomplished in 1945. But certainly he would have expected Woods to win more than three times since the GTE Byron Nelson Classic in 1997.

"I am surprised," Nelson said Wednesday.

But watching Woods prepare for the PGA Championship at Winged Foot in 1997 tempered the expectations.

"I was looking in the pro shop just as he was going to the locker room," Nelson recalled. "All of a sudden, he was hit with the people there. He had to be rescued from the people before he could get to practice.

"I was standing around there for a while and had lunch when I saw him coming back. He was running, trying to get out of the way of some of the people. That's hard."

That's Tigermania.

It may not be the craze it was two years ago, but it's still no walk in the park. Woods began his pro-am Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. and 50 people were walking down the fairway with him. When he finished, he had to fight through a wall of fans who wanted an autograph or a picture, or only a glimpse.

"I don't think that happened to me," Nelson said.

When Nelson won the 1937 Masters, he said only one reporter, O.B. Keeler, wanted to talk to him. Nelson returned to Augusta National again this year and found out that 1,100 press credentials had been issued.

"He's still good," Nelson said. ``He's a 23-year-old kid with a lot of ambition and he likes to beat somebody. He draws a lot of people and will continue to draw people because he puts on a show out there."

Woods headlined the field today when the Nelson Classic began on two courses, the TPC at Las Colinas and Cottonwood Valley.

No one should be surprised if Woods manages to win this week. The Nelson starts his third phase of the season, and it has always been the most successful part.

He plays the West Coast swing and takes a few weeks off. Then comes the Florida swing, leading into the Masters and then another long break. Then he wins.

After his record-setting victory in the Masters in 1997, Woods took four weeks off and then came back to win the Nelson, tying the scoring record of 17-under 263 that Ernie Els had set in 1995.

A year ago, Woods took three weeks off after the Masters, showed up outside Atlanta and won the BellSouth Classic.

He arrived for the Nelson having spent three weeks away from golf, not even touching a club for 10 straight days.

"I just hung out with my friends and got away from the game," Woods said. "I was really burned out. Bay Hill was playing tough, The Players Championship was really hard, then the Masters and Hilton Head. Those are tough tracks.

"It's not so much the golf that wears you out, but the mental fatigue of grinding on these golf courses," he said. "They were playing so difficult, you can't let up."

What might help Woods more than being refreshed would be reverting to the form from the first part of the season.

During the West Coast swing, Woods won in San Diego and finished in the top five in five of his six tournaments. He only had one round over par during that stretch, a 78 on a nasty, windy day at Pebble Beach.

Since leaving California after his quarterfinal loss in the Match Play Championship, Woods has yet to get into serious, Sunday contention.

He has broken 70 just once in his last 17 rounds, and his scoring average has been nearly three strokes higher since the West Coast swing. A lot of that has to do with putting -- Woods ranks 102nd on tour in putts per green, and his average of 29.69 putts per round places him 162nd out of 188 players.

In the Masters, he took the second-most putts (126), but still tied for 18th, nine strokes back of Jose Maria Olazabal.

As always, Woods says it's a matter of staying patient.

He says he putts by feel, lining up putts from all possible angles, but ultimately relying on his hunch before he pulls the trigger.

"I know what it's going to do generally, but I go by my feel," he said. "That's how I putted at Augusta -- when I played pretty good there."

One of these days, he'll play like that again. Nelson might not be surprised by the results, only the attention it brings.

AP


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