Woods battles illness, rain to win by 11 strokes

Updated: March 25, 2003, 11:02 AM ET
Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tiger Woods split the middle of the fairway with a 3-wood, then ducked outside the ropes and dropped to his knees, his stomach heaving from a nasty bout of food poisoning.

Tiger Woods
A weakened Tiger Woods clearly wasn't himself, but maintained his focus during Sunday's final round.

He never had it so difficult, nor has he ever made winning look so easy.

Sickened by some bad pasta that caused him to vomit through the night and a rainy Sunday, Woods still managed to win the Bay Hill Invitational for the fourth straight year by going the final 44 holes without a bogey and winning by 11 strokes.

It will only look routine in the record books.

''If I wasn't in contention, I wouldn't have gone. There's no way,'' Woods said. ''It was a joke. Every single tee shot hurt because my abs were obviously sore from last night, and I continued on while I was playing.

''The night was long, and the day was probably even longer,'' he said. ''That being said, I'm very happy with the way I played.''

Prepare the green jacket
You heard it here first: Tiger Woods is going to win The Masters -- and he just might take the Players Championship on his way to Augusta.

What? You already figured that out on your own? Well, I guess it doesn't take a genius (or a member of the golf media) to tell you what should be obvious to anyone that's been paying attention the last month and a half:

Tiger is good.

How good, you ask?

So good he makes the rest of the PGA Tour look like they should be selling encyclopedias.

Take his performance Sunday at Bay Hill, for example. Playing in a driving rainstorm and with a nasty case of food poisoning that had him heading for the bushes on more than a few occasions, Woods not only maintained his five-stroke lead, he more than doubled it. His 11-stroke victory is the largest winning margin in tournament history.

So good that he did something that hasn't been done in 73 years -- win an event the last four times he played it. So good that he leads the money list despite giving the rest of the PGA Tour a five-week head start while recovering from knee surgery.

Even Ernie Els -- dubbed Woods' next threat after winning four of his first six events this year and finishing runner-up in the other two -- was no match for Tiger this week. The Big Easy took the clubhouse lead after a second-round 65, but dropped to a tie for 38th after an awful 72-77 weekend.

Woods is so good no one in his right mind would pick anyone but him to take home the green jacket in April.

So good there's nothing left to write -- until next week.

For more tidbits and analysis, check out our Weekend Wrapup.

Woods closed with a 4-under 68 to become the first player in 73 years to win the same tournament four straight times.

It also was the fourth time in his career he has won by double digits, another dominant performance despite the piteous scenes of him running to the bushes and behind courtesy vans as he tried to find a private place to be sick in front of 10,000 fans.

Woods came down with food poisoning Saturday night after a pasta dinner prepared by his girlfriend, Elin Nordegren. Only a day earlier, she collapsed outside the clubhouse from food poisoning and dehydration.

Nordegren spent the night in the hospital. Woods didn't think he had that option.

''The problem is, it's so easy to check into a hospital, but getting out is the hard part,'' Woods said. ''I wanted to get my fluid levels up in case today was hot and humid, but ... I didn't know if they were going to let me go. So, I decided not to do that.''

Woods was helped by a cool, steady rain that drenched Bay Hill, not to mention a five-stroke lead going into the final round and a game that looks better than ever.

Woods finished at 19-under 269 and became the first player since Gene Sarazen in the Miami Open (1926-30) to win the same event four straight times.

Brad Faxon missed a 6-foot par putt on the 18th hole that cost him $189,000. He had a 74 and dropped into a four-way tie for second with Kirk Triplett (70), Kenny Perry (71) and Stewart Cink (72).

Faxon knew he didn't have a chance, not after Woods laced a 3-wood from 265 yards into 12 feet on No. 4 for an eagle to increase his lead to eight strokes.

''When he's got a seven- or eight-shot lead, he's not going to throw up all over himself,'' Faxon said, only seconds later realizing his dubious choice of words.

''He was ready to play,'' Faxon said. ''As sick as he felt, I don't think if he felt great he would have played much better than that.''

Especially not on this course, where Woods first won in 1991 in the U.S. Junior Amateur.

Arnold Palmer might own the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, but Woods owns the tournament.

His 11-stroke victory was the largest margin in the 25-year history of Bay Hill, breaking by two the previous mark, set by Fred Couples in 1992.

It matched the third-largest margin in Woods' career, behind his 15-stroke victory in the 2000 U.S. Open and his 12-stroke win in the 1997 Masters. Woods also won at Firestone by 11 shots in 2000, when he could barely see the 18th green because of darkness.

Steady rain that fell throughout the day almost kept Woods from finishing this one. Large pools of water covered the fairways, but there was no point in stopping -- everyone knew how this was going to turn out.

Woods improved to 28-2 when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead, and he has won the last 16 times when leading through 36 holes.

''It was mind-boggling watching the way he played,'' Cink said.

It was clear something was wrong with Woods about 20 minutes before his tee time when he sat on his bag after taking a few practice putts. He also took a seat after his opening tee shot, a weak fade that found the first cut of rough.

Woods usually walks quickly and with purpose down the fairways. On Sunday, he was walking 40 yards behind his playing partners.

Woods had the advantage of a five-stroke lead, and the sloppy conditions made it difficult for anyone to make a run at him. His job was to make pars, and that's what he did.

''I saw that Fax wasn't swinging all that well,'' Woods said. ''I knew if I could keep making a lot of pars, put a whole bunch of pressure on these guys, then they would have to play some kind of special round to catch me.''

Two of the biggest pars came early -- a 15-footer on No. 2 and a 12-footer on the next hole after a poor chip.

Woods won for the 37th time in his career, 11th most in history. He earned $810,000 and again leads the PGA Tour money list with over $2.8 million in just four tournaments, after missing the first five weeks while recovering from knee surgery.

This is only the second time in his career that Woods has won three times before the Masters, and he still has The Players Championship next week.

The other time was 2000, when Woods turned in one of the greatest seasons in golf with nine victories and three straight majors. This is shaping up to be another bonanza.

He won by four at Torrey Pines in his first competition in two months. He won by eleven at Bay Hill despite spending half of his time on his knees or resting on his golf bag.

At times, it looks like he can't be stopped.

Notes
Ernie Els, playing in the same 72-hole tournament with Woods for the first time this year, had a double bogey on the 18th and shot 77. He finished at even-par 288, 19 strokes behind. ... Ty Tryon closed with a 69 and tied for 10th, the best finish of his career.


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press

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