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Tiger takes 2 steps in wrong direction

Woods hangs on to the lead, but his 74 at Bay Hill opens the door to a slew of players.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2002

Woods hangs on to the lead, but his 74 at Bay Hill opens the door to a slew of players.

ORLANDO -- You expected a coronation and instead got a competition.

Tiger Woods has done it so many times in his career, stretching a lead as long as one of his tee shots, that today's final round figured to be an easy stroll to victory at the Bay Hill Invitational.

But proving again that golf is a game that can reduce even the best player in the world to ordinary status, Woods was far from a lock to notch his 30th PGA Tour victory.

Sure, he was still in the lead heading into the final round, a position from where he has rarely been beaten.

Woods, however, turned a waltz into a stress test, shooting 2-over-par 74 Saturday, reducing his four-shot 36-hole advantage to one after 54 and allowing a slew of players back into the tournament.

"It's very disappointing not to play well, because the way I was playing I felt very comfortable with my game," said Woods, who was nine strokes worse than Friday's 65. "That's golf. It's very fickle. I guess it's one of those things that happens. I had good warmup swings on the range. It just got progressively a little worse as I played."

Woods, at 10-under 206, was still in a desirable position, leading a PGA Tour event through 54 holes for the 24th time. He has failed to convert twice, the most recent at the 2000 Tour Championship, where he finished in second place, two shots behind Phil Mickelson.

But the tournament was wide open, with Len Mattiace a shot back after shooting 68 and five players within two shots: Clearwater's John Huston (70), Scott McCarron (72), Michael Campbell (68), Chad Campbell (68) and Pat Perez (69).

There were eight tied for eighth, three behind, including Mickelson, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, John Daly, Vijay Singh and Jose Maria Olazabal. There were 21 players within five shots of the lead.

"Tiger let a lot of guys back in it," said Huston, who birdied the final hole to shoot 70 and plays for his first victory since the 2000 Tampa Bay Classic. "But that's not to say he isn't going to shoot something ridiculous (today)."

Unlike his near-flawless round Friday, Woods struggled throughout. He bogeyed the first, seventh, ninth and 10th. And he didn't give himself many chances at birdie. He managed to hold his round together with birdie at the par-5 12th and parred in.

"I just didn't feel comfortable, and I could have (lost it) at any time," said Woods, who led at Bay Hill through three rounds for the third straight year and is trying for his third consecutive victory in the event. "I made those bogeys at 9 and 10. Didn't hit a very good tee shot on 11. Pulled an iron shot on the second shot. It just wasn't solid."

Mattiace, 34, appears an unlikely challenger. He broke through last month for his first tour victory, winning the Nissan Open in his 220th start. He might be best remembered for a tie for fifth at the 1998 Players Championship, where he was in contention until knocking two balls into the water at the island green 17th in the final round.

But it was at the Players Championship two years ago that Mattiace got his first and, so far, only chance to play with Woods.

"One thing I learned is that I played well, and it was in my hometown, so there was a lot going on. I learned that my game was very good at that time," Mattiace said. "The other thing I learned is how Tiger kept his round going, he continued to play better through the round. It was just something I learned, to try to play well through the round, not just part of the round."

Mattiace kept his round going Saturday by holing a 12-footer for par at the 14th hole and a 50-footer for par at the 17th. He was the only player to not make a bogey Saturday.

Woods had his share of those.

"That I was able to hang in there and still maintain the lead, I'm very pleased with that," he said. "I could have been a lot worse."

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