It's a Big, Easy Day for Tiger

Times Staff Writer

Who's next in line now? You, Brad Faxon, take one step forward, please. On a muggy Saturday, the mosquitoes around here had attention spans longer than the matchup between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els at the Bay Hill Invitational.

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Els started a very long day one shot ahead of Woods and ended it 10 shots behind him.

Afterward, someone asked Els what he could take away from the experience.

"At least I came back to make the cut," Els said.

But what about his showdown with Tiger?

"I think, in a way, we delivered," Els said. "Well, at least Tiger delivered."

That's true, but Woods spent a long time in the delivery process. First, Tiger had 11 holes left over to finish his rain-delayed second round, so he birdied six of them, churned out a 65 and vaulted into the same group as Els to start the third round.

That enabled Els to watch the carnage close up. He saw Woods throw a 66 at Bay Hill for a 15-under total of 201 that's worth a five-shot lead over Faxon with only 18 holes separating him from another chapter in the history books.

If Woods comes through, he will be the first player in 73 years to win the same tournament four consecutive times. Gene Sarazen won the Miami Open four times in a row, the last one in 1930.

Faxon knows his work is cut out for him. He was in this same situation five weeks ago at Torrey Pines, playing with Woods on Sunday, and he wound up third. Woods, of course, won. And if he wins again today, that's three victories in four events this year.

"What can you say about the guy?" said Faxon, whose 65 moved him from 14th to second. "There's no superlatives left."

It was nothing less than a virtuoso performance by Woods, who rose at 4:30 a.m. so he could arrive at the course by 6. Forced to play 29 holes in all, Woods had 12 birdies and one bogey, none in the last 26 holes.

"It was a long day," said Woods, who played the long holes better than anyone.

Woods took on six par fives Saturday and birdied five of them. He is 10 under on the par fives so far.

"I always knew the key to this golf course was the par fives," he said. "Especially when it's this hot, the ball is flying. With my length, I should be able to get to every par five, and with that in mind, I should be able to walk off with four."

Counting the 11 holes he played that were left over from Friday and adding his first seven from his third round -- the equivalent of one full round -- Woods had 10 birdies.

By the time the second round had officially ended in the morning, Woods had turned a one-shot deficit behind Els to a three-shot lead over Stewart Cink and a four-shot lead over Els, Jonathan Kaye, Rodney Pampling and Aaron Baddeley.

Cink's two-under 70 keeps him in the running, at least mathematically, at eight-under 208, but he trails Woods by seven shots. Baddeley had a 70 and is tied for fourth with John Huston, Stephen Ames and Kenny Perry.

Woods is 27-2 when holding the 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event. And no one has ever come from more than one shot behind to beat him. The two who have are Ed Fiori in Woods' third event as a pro in 1996 and Phil Mickelson at the 2000 Tour Championship.

Woods started the ball rolling in the third round when he sank a four-foot birdie putt at the second that dropped him to 10 under. He got another at the fourth when he sank a five-footer, then chipped in from 32 feet for another birdie at the par-five sixth.

Woods insisted he had a bad lie and was only trying to hit the ball correctly to put it on the right pace to the hole.

"Just happened to go in the hole, which was a bonus," he said.

Now, Woods was 12 under. Meanwhile, Els was having his problems. He missed a three-footer to bogey the third.

"Ridiculous," he said.

And at the sixth, he hooked his drive badly into the water and made a bogey. Els says the wrist he injured hitting a punching bag in a training session was bothering him and affected his iron shots.

"But I hung in there," he said. "A little disappointed. Conditions were perfect to go low, but it was nice playing with Tiger. He's obviously played well again. He loves playing with me, I can promise you that.

"But I think this is a good start to the season. If we are going to play together, I feel my game can stand up and I've just got to get 100% fit, then I'll be all right.

"Obviously, Tiger just did his thing. Hopefully, it will go my way one of these days."

Els knocked it stiff at the 18th, tapped in a two-footer for birdie, then waited and watched Woods end his day with a two-putt par. They shook hands, smiled and walked off the green to sign their scorecards. When will they play again in the same group, the last one on a Sunday?

Els could only shake his head.

"He's still the man, but I've just got to keep going."

That's probably the right way to look at it. In the meantime, Tiger is still going strong, and he's not showing any signs of slowing down.

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