Woods picking up momentum for Augusta

Associated Press
Tuesday, March 27

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. ? Tiger Woods crouched and cupped his hands over his brow to study the slope in his 45-foot eagle putt on the 16th hole. Out of the corner of his eye, across the water to a tiny patch of land, he could see his final challenge.

What it means
Players were starting to think the intimidation factor was gone, but with The Masters just two weeks away, Tiger Woods has thrown down the gauntlet.

With victories at Bay Hill last week and Sawgrass this week, Woods has shown he is still the best player in the game. And he'll ride his best golf of the year into the tournament where everybody already fears him.

With the exception of Vijay Singh, the other top contenders will head to Augusta with doubts about their games. Difficult times at The Players Championship are not what they needed prior to the first major.

Davis Love III, Ernie Els, Jesper Parnevik, Lee Westwood and Stewart Cink are just some of the players who missed the cut at Sawgrass, while Colin Montgomerie, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia were mediocre at best on the weekend.

Take away the poor drive on No. 14, however, and Singh probably wins the tournament. And given his four other top-five finishes this year and two wins on the European Tour, his game is in excellent shape as he thinks about a second consecutive green jacket.

Hal Sutton also showed his guts at Sawgrass, finishing fifth despite taking a horrible fall on Wednesday that would have kept most players out of the tournament. Augusta, however, has never been kind to Sutton.

And one thing players can keep in mind when The Masters begins: No player has ever won The Players Championship and The Masters in the same season.

-- Greg Robertson
ESPN Golf Online

Vijay Singh rolled in a short birdie putt on the island-green 17th, and Woods' lead was down to one. If there were any more questions about his game or his ability to thrive under pressure, he answered them quickly.

Woods' eagle putt broke three directions before lipping out, and he tapped in for birdie. He found land ? just barely ? on the 17th green and saved par with a 6-foot putt, then cruised home to a one-stroke victory Monday in The Players Championship.

"To be able to win a championship like this on an extremely demanding golf course, with probably the best field assembled in all of golf ... it's extremely rewarding," said Woods, who closed with a 5-under 67.

Singh twice challenged Woods over the nine-hole sprint to the finish. He was within one stroke until a triple-bogey on the 14th, then made a late charge by using the toe-end of his putter to make a 25-foot eagle on the 16th.

It wasn't enough, nor was his birdie on the 17th.

"One bad swing. That's all it took," said Singh, who had a 68. "Under the gun, you know that you cannot make mistakes."

Woods now goes to Augusta National with a load of confidence as he tries to become the first player to hold all four major championships at the same time.

"I'm headed in the right direction, no doubt about that," Woods said. "Looking at the trophies that I have on my mantle, three are lined up. Put another one on there, it looks pretty good."

So do his chances of winning The Masters.

What better way to prepare than by winning The Players Championship, the only prestigious tournament that had been missing from his credentials.

Woods earned $1,080,000, his fourth $1 million payoff on the PGA Tour, to move to the top of the money list. And after his wild and dramatic victory at Bay Hill last week, he now has won back-to-back starts for the seventh time in his career.

No one in 28 years has ever won The Players Championship and The Masters in the same year, not even close. Not many would bet against Woods.

"I kind of expected everything I saw," said Jerry Kelly, who spent the final 18 holes over two days paired with Woods. "He's the best player in the world. He showed it."

 Vijay Singh
Vijay Singh couldn't quite make up the ground he lost after a triple-bogey on the 14th hole.
Kelly proved he could play, too, despite losing his two-stroke lead over nine holes Sunday and never threatening to get it back. He closed with a 73, making a double-bogey on the last hole that dropped him to fourth place, a $60,000 mistake.

"Good week, good check, so what?" said Kelly, who has never won in 175 starts on tour. "We all want to win."

Bernhard Langer completed a 67 and finished third at 276.

The final round was suspended Sunday after nine holes because of rain delays, and Woods had a one-stroke lead after making a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 9.

When they returned to still, sunny conditions, Woods wasted no time taking control.

His 7-iron from 164 yards landed 6 feet behind the flag and spun back to 2 inches for a tap-in birdie. He then hit a sand wedge from 60 yards into 8 feet for a birdie on No. 12.

Singh stayed with him, making a 3-foot birdie putt on the 13th.

But The Masters champ tried to shape his drive from left-to-right on the 467-yard 14th and pulled it into the water. He dropped at the front of the tee box and hit into the fairway, then hit 6-iron into an awkward spot in the clumpy rough right of the green.

When Singh failed to get up-and-down from there, he had a triple-bogey and the tournament was firmly in Woods' grasp.

The only close call came on the 17th.

The pin was to the right of the island, and Woods' 9-iron drifted perilously close to the edge with the prevailing breeze. It hopped over to the right and stopped in the rough, the ball barely touching the yellow paint of the hazard.

"I knew I hit it the right distance," Woods said. "I saw it bounce and said, 'No big deal.' "

Unable to ground his club, Woods' chip came up 6 feet short. He made the par putt to maintain his two-stroke lead, then made a conservative bogey after hitting 2-iron off the tee into the right rough.

The 17th is where Woods first rose to fame in 1994 when he won the U.S. Amateur on the TPC at Sawgrass. His tee shot just stayed on the back of the green, and his birdie putt gave him the lead over Trip Kuehne.

Just like then, everything seems to be falling in Woods' direction at just the right time.

That wasn't the case earlier in the year, when the putts turned away from the hole or the approach into the 18th green at Dubai found water for double-bogey instead of land for a victory. Still, he never was far from the lead.

"I felt like I was playing some pretty good golf over the last few months," Woods said. "It's just that you need to have some good breaks come your way. You have to have a little luck on your side, and I think that's what has transpired over the last couple of weeks."

As for that so-called slump?

"I've won two tournaments in a row," Woods said. "I'm sure they'll write about something else."

If he can make it three in a row, Woods will write himself into the history books again.
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