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1997 NISSAN OPEN / RIVIERA COUNTRY CLUB

With the Trail Cold at Riviera, Tiger Alert Is Canceled

Golf: Much-anticipated charge fails to materialize as distracted Woods musters only a one-over 72.

March 02, 1997|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it could happen at Pebble Beach, it could happen here, so Riviera decked itself out and took every precaution, bracing for a weekend outbreak of contagious, debilitating Tiger fever.

"PLEASE KEEP OFF THE TREES" signs were draped over low-hanging branches alongside the sixth and 16th holes.

"PLEASE KEEP OFF THE HEATER" was the message attached to the five-foot-high soil temperature control unit planted next to the seventh tee.

If Tiger Woods was going to climb up the leaderboard, Tiger's minions, no doubt, would try to keep pace, in order to keep him in sight.

Higher ground, for both golfer and gallery, was the goal going into Saturday's third round of the Nissan Open.

Woods began the day five strokes off the pace--two under par--with 36 holes to play. That was half the task that confronted Woods a month earlier at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, when Woods entered the weekend 10 strokes back, birdied 18 of his last 36 holes and pushed leader Mark O'Meara to the final green before falling short by a stroke.

Riviera was placed on stampede alert as Woods stepped to his first tee Saturday morning.

Marshal law loomed as a crowd-control option in the event flimsy cardboard and thin nylon rope failed as deterrents.

Then, Tiger began hitting the ball.

All over the place.

In four holes, Woods fell from two under to even par.

Bogey on two.

Bogey on four.

Bogey on nine.

Woods shot a front-nine 37, two over par. With an 11th-hole birdie, he regained a stroke on the back nine, but that still left him one over par for the day (72) and one under for the tournament.

And, most significantly, eight strokes behind leader Nick Faldo.

"Obviously, I didn't play well," Woods said after two-putting the 18th hole, leaving his putt total for the round at a nosebleed level 31.

"I just couldn't find it today. I didn't drive the ball very well. I didn't hit a lot of good irons. I felt good putting, but everything was around the hole."

Thus, Riviera's eucalyptus population was spared. If anything, Woods' gallery actually shrank as the putts failed to drop, with many course hoofers switching allegiance to Faldo's group or peeling off to follow Scott McCarron after the leaderboard showed consecutive eagles for McCarron on 10 and 11.

There appears to be no Pebble Beach II in the offing. That tournament, Woods began the fourth round seven strokes back. Inspired as his late charge was that afternoon, Woods could gain no more than six strokes on O'Meara.

So, in all likelihood, Woods is playing for a paycheck today, royalty reduced to just another grinder trying to hack out a living.

Give or take the $43 million in endorsement deals.

Woods said he was disappointed not to have played better in front of the home fans, many of them driving up to Riviera from Woods' native Orange County.

"Yeah," he said, "but I also understand why. I'm not using it as an excuse, but I have to be reasonable. When something else is on your mind, it's difficult to play golf."

Woods was referring to the one fan who wasn't there to watch him Saturday--his father, Earl, still recovering from triple-bypass heart surgery at UCLA Medical Center.

For Woods, these last three days have amounted to 18 holes and out, with time normally allotted for practice and driving-range work now devoted to visiting his father.

Were the bogeys and the sloppy putting results of that lack of practice?

Woods shook his head.

"It's a lot more than that," he said. "There's a lot to it.

"I'm having difficulty playing this week. It's almost reminiscent of the Tour Championship [when Earl was hospitalized in Tulsa last October with then-undetermined chest pains]. It's not exactly the same, because I know what's going on this time, but it's similar."

Asked for a status report on Earl, Tiger said, "Obviously, he's good. But I don't know how good. That's why I'm going to go see him right now."

And as for a status report on the younger Woods as it pertains to the final round of the 1997 Nissan Open?

"I need to get off to a good start," Woods said. "If I birdie the first hole, maybe something positive will click in. Who knows?"

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