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Mano-a-mano third round falls short

Tiger Woods takes a big step toward historic Bay Hill win, and Ernie Els stumbles.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003

ORLANDO -- So much for a Sunday showdown.

Unless, of course, you figured on a duel between Tiger Woods and Brad Faxon.

That's what is left at the Bay Hill Invitational, where the golf world wanted a Woods-Ernie Els confrontation in the final round.

The scenario materialized Saturday afternoon, but it didn't turn out to be much of a fight. Woods shot 66, Els 72, and a clash between the top-ranked players in the world has to wait.

"In a way, we delivered," Els said of playing together in the last group. "At least Tiger delivered."

That he did.

Woods, No.1 in the world, played 29 holes Saturday, including 11 to complete the rain-delayed second round. He played the final 26 without a bogey and made 12 birdies. His 6-under 66 in the third round was good for a five-shot advantage over Faxon.

Els, who has won four times around the world this year and has been viewed as a threat to Woods' dominance, woke up with a one-shot overnight lead on Woods, who passed Els during the completion of his second round.

When the third round began a huge crowd lined the first fairway, revved for a shootout that never materialized. Els ended the day 10 strokes behind, tied for 11th.

"It's disappointing," Els said. "The conditions were perfect to go low. I wasn't quite comfortable. I hung in there. I played the last four holes really well. It was nice playing with Tiger. He's a nice guy to play with. Obviously, he played well again. He loves playing with me."

Els has finished second to Woods six times, more than any other player. He has a lot of work ahead of him to get close today.

"You could tell he was struggling with his swing a little bit," Woods said. "He never really hit the ball as clean, as crisp, as he normally does."

Woods was in commanding position for his 37th PGA Tour victory. Has has won 27 of 29 tour events, 31 of 35 worldwide, when holding or sharing the 54-hole lead. No player has come from more than two strokes behind to beat him.

With rounds of 70-65-66, Woods was at 15-under 201. Faxon was at 206, and Stewart Cink shot 70 and was seven back at 208.

Faxon's task is nearly impossible. Faxon, 41, a seven-time PGA Tour winner, played in the final group with Woods and Phil Mickelson last month at the Buick Invitational. He started one stroke back and ended up third.

"What would be a good number to shoot when you're (five) back of him on this course?" asked Faxon, who shot 65. "One of my goals this year was to play more with Tiger, and not in practice rounds. I think if you're playing with him, you're doing okay. You know he's the favorite. He's won here three times in a row. He looks like he's always looking here.

"So it's going to be tough. If I can go out and shoot another great round, we'll see what happens. But I'm going to enjoy it."

Woods is in position to win this tournament for the fourth consecutive year, a feat not accomplished on the PGA Tour since 1930 when Gene Sarazen won his fourth straight Miami Open at Miami Springs Country Club.

This also was the 100th straight cut Woods has made, and he has won two of his three events this year after knee surgery.

In each of his three straight wins at Bay Hill, Woods has led or shared the lead going into the final round on a course that obviously suits him well.

"It's mostly the fact that his ball stops where it hits on the greens," said Clearwater's John Huston, who shot 66 and was tied for fourth, eight shots back. "He's hitting to a lot bigger target than everybody else. He hits it so solid. When you hit a 7-iron 200 yards, it's going to be coming straight down. I'm hitting a 5-iron from 200 yards. It's coming in a lot flatter. The tournaments that play really easy are the ones where the ball hits and stays right there. His does it every week."

Els can hit those kind of shots, too. He just didn't pull them off Saturday, although he didn't view it as a setback.

"There was a lot of support out there, it was great," Els said. "They really want somebody to step up."

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