Winner of Big Showdown Is ... Bay Hill

Times Staff Writer

As he made his way to the 18th green Thursday at Bay Hill, a young girl slipped under the gallery ropes, ran over to Tiger Woods and gave him a U.S. flag.

"She's just a little sweetheart," Woods said of 9-year-old Lisa Peon of Orlando after she'd put the flag in his hands. "It's really cute."

Actually, it's probably good practice for Woods, who is accustomed to having people handing him things, usually on Sunday afternoons, usually trophies.

And so it went in Round 1 of the supercharged Tiger-Ernie Els showdown, when only half of the contestants in this two-player confrontation had a day to remember.

Score it this way: Edge to Tiger.

Woods birdied the last hole for a two-under-par 70 and is only one shot out of a six-way tie for the lead, the crowded group at the top featuring 22-year-old Aaron Baddeley.

Meanwhile, Els shot a two-over 74 -- his worst round in three PGA Tour events this year, by seven shots.

"I tried to keep a big number off my scorecard," he said. "I didn't quite do that."

Els was one under at the turn but triple-bogeyed the par-three 14th and suddenly appeared to be heading in the wrong direction.

The 14th was a picture of ugliness. Els drove into a bunker, then just barely got the ball out, leaving it short of the green and stuck in the rough. He chipped to four feet and missed, then missed a two-footer coming back before finally getting a three-footer to drop.

But before you could say the rivalry was over ... it wasn't. At the par-five 16th, Els hit his second shot onto the grassy bank just inches from the lake. He chopped it out to the fringe and rolled in a 12-foot putt for a birdie.

"I got away with something there," Els said.

It just goes to show the adventurous spirit of Els, who likes to see every part of the course as he rolls along.

Maybe that's what happened at the next hole. Els missed the green at the par-three 17th, chipped to five feet, missed his par putt and took a bogey. And at the 18th, Els' second shot glanced off a rock into a back bunker and he wound up burying a 30-footer just to save par.

Afterward, Els' mood was not nearly as soggy as the humid weather, which was perfect for tropical plants, not so good for players.

"I did well most of the day ... until I started practicing my putting at the 14th," Els joked. "I didn't play a very good round today, but I'm off early tomorrow. I can go out there and shoot a good one. I'm not totally out of it."

Woods said he was happy with his start, especially after taking the last two weeks off since his match play victory at La Costa. He said par was a good score for the first round, the way the course was playing, with firm greens, rough and gusty winds.

"It's tough," he said. "If you drive the ball in the rough out here, you're going to pay the price. You can't hold the ball on the greens.

"I think if these greens get baked out, if this wind stays up like this, it could be one of the tougher golf courses we'll face, except for the majors."

Els said the same thing, marveling at the firmness of the greens and admitting how difficult it was to stop the ball close to any pins.

Those who did the best job of it were players who had morning starts and didn't have the kind of wind that Els or the other afternoon starters had. Stewart Cink, Jonathan Kaye, and J.L. Lewis began with 69s and were later joined by Baddeley, Jeff Maggert and Trevor Immelman, a rising star on the European Tour.

The pace-setters' 69s matched the highest first-round score to lead Bay Hill in the tournament's 25-year-history.

Immelman, a 23-year-old countryman of Els from South Africa, has already won twice on the European Tour this year and owns a home at nearby Lake Nona, as Els does.

After taking a lesson Wednesday afternoon from Butch Harmon, Immelman said he felt comfortable playing in only his third PGA Tour event. He's pretty sure he knows how Els is feeling.

"I think he's got his mind a couple of weeks ahead to Augusta right now," Immelman said.

Brad Faxon, who is tied with Woods at two under, said the key matchup remained the same, regardless of what happened to Woods and Els on opening day.

"A lot has been made of Ernie's great start and Tiger's great start and I'm sure everybody wants to see the two of them paired together for the last round of the tournament," Faxon said. "It's been so hyped up and they have only played together one time.

"I think the golfing world probably wants to see that. Everybody wants to see someone take on the favorite in every sport. Right now, Ernie is that guy."

That happened at Kapalua in 2000 when both players eagled the last hole to get into a playoff. They both birdied the first extra hole before Woods nailed a 45-foot birdie putt to win it on the next hole.

That was a great day for Woods, something that both Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer have experienced many times -- but not Thursday. Palmer, 73, shot an 87 with two birdies.

"There weren't any highlights," Palmer said. "I'm disappointed in the way I played, but you can't expect a hell of a lot. I didn't expect to break par, but I didn't expect to shoot quite as high as I did."

And Nicklaus, 63, dropped nine shots over the last six holes, shot a 45 on the back and wound up with an 82.

Nicklaus was one over after 12 holes, but he triple-bogeyed the 13th, bogeyed the 15th, double-bogeyed the 17th and triple-bogeyed the 18th when he hit his second shot into a bunker, then knocked it onto the rocks and took a penalty.

"I'll talk tomorrow," Nicklaus said as he left the scorer's tent.

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