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Bay Hill's been good to Tiger, just not lately

3/12/2008

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The notion of Tiger Woods even threatening Byron Nelson's long-believed untouchable record of 11 straight PGA Tour victories seems preposterous until you look at the schedule.

Every tournament Woods figures to play between now and the U.S. Open is at a venue where he has already won a tournament. So you can see why some are giddy over the prospect of Woods continuing his winning streak right through Torrey Pines and tying Lord Byron.

But that enthusiasm is somewhat tempered when you look closely at this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Woods will attempt to win his fourth start of the year, his third straight on the PGA Tour and fifth in a row dating to last season.

The Bay Hill Club is generally regarded as Woods' playground, since he has won the tournament four times.

Those four victories, however, came in from 2000 to 2003. Since then, he has finished no better than a tie for 20th, including last year, when he shot 43 on the back nine for a closing 76 and a tie for 22nd. That represents the longest active stretch of not finishing better than 20th in any tournament.

Woods is not reading much into it.

"I just haven't played well, it's as simple as that," Woods said Wednesday after playing in the pro-am at the Bay Hill Club. "No ifs, ands or buts about it. I just have to play better and I just haven't done that the last few years.''

Woods was in the middle of swing changes when he tied for 46th at Bay Hill in 2004, the year he won just one tournament.

But he had monster years in 2005-07, when he won a total of 21 PGA Tour events, including five major championships.

He just didn't get it done at Bay Hill.

"This [course] has always fit my eye since the junior golf days,'' Woods said. "I won the U.S. Junior [in 1991] here. I just haven't played well, and this golf course, you have to play well on it in order to win the tournament. You can't go out there and slap it around and try and shoot something in the mid-60s here.''

Although statistics do not always tell the entire story in golf, it is interesting to note that Woods' stroke average from 2000 to 2003 was 67.93 at Bay Hill, and increased to 71.37 from 2004 to 2007, a difference of 3½ shots per round.

His fairways hit per round dropped from 11 to nine, and his putts per round increased by more than two, from 27.5 to 29.7 -- although he hit nearly the same number of greens per round (12.6 in the winning years, 12.2 in the four years since).

"He's just putted so-so, like a normal human being,'' said NBC analyst Johnny Miller.

"I just think he has not played to his ability those particular weeks, no real reason for it,'' said Phil Mickelson, who won the Bay Hill tournament in 1997.

The course has undergone changes in recent years with the idea of making it play more difficult. Last year, two par-5s were converted to par-4s, with overall par changing from 72 to 70. And there has been a steady move toward firmer greens and more difficult rough.

And yet, the overall scoring average has not changed significantly over the past eight years.

"We haven't regulated our tournament to do anything as far as Tiger is concerned,'' said tournament host Arnold Palmer, who was passed by Woods on the all-time PGA Tour victory list three weeks ago.

"We don't have time for me to tell you what I think about Tiger and his golf,'' said Palmer, who has 62 career wins. "Right now, I think he has got it by the neck and he's choking it, and he should. When you play that well, as he has, his game is obviously responding to his commands. … What has he won, only the last four or five tournaments he's played in?''

Since he tied for 12th at the British Open, Woods has played in nine worldwide events -- including the Target World Challenge, an unofficial tournament -- and won eight, with a second to Mickelson at the Deutsche Bank Championship in August.

After Bay Hill, Woods will play next week at Doral, where he has won three straight years. Then it's on to the Masters, where he has four victories. He'll be defending his title at the Wachovia Championship in May, followed by the Players Championship, where he won in 2001 but has no top-10s since. Then comes the Memorial, where he's won three times and the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he has four straight Buick Invitationals and six overall.

Woods does not appear to have put any extra emphasis on winning this week. Although he lives just a few miles away, Woods did not play extra practice rounds on the course, seeing the venue Wednesday for the first time since last year.

His big-picture goal is to be ready for the Masters in four weeks, but Woods will undoubtedly be playing to win every tournament, streak or no streak.

"That's the intent,'' he said. "That's the way I've always played. You don't play to finish top-10 or make cuts. You play to win. If you are entered in the field, I don't understand why you would think any other way.''

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.