Originally created 02/11/00

Blinders on, Love tries to keep Tiger out of sight

SAN DIEGO -- Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson, two victims of the greatest winning streak on the PGA Tour in 52 years, put themselves in position Thursday for another crack at stopping Tiger Woods.

While Woods was out of sync and usually in the rough, Love recovered from one mess after another and finished a roller-coaster round at 7-under 65, giving him a one-stroke lead over Mickelson in the Buick Invitational.

"I just didn't have it," Woods said after a 1-under 71.

Love, who finished four strokes back of Woods in the Tour Championship, made 10 birdies and a 30-foot par save on the South Course at Torrey Pines, considered the more difficult of the two tracks.

Mickelson, the first victim in the streak that began with the NEC Invitational in August, shot a 66 on the North Course.

While Love is trying to win for the first time in nearly two years, his thoughts were never too far away from Woods.

"He's the guy to beat as long as he doesn't hurt himself," Love said. "He's been on a roll since high school."

Woods was two days removed from his sixth straight victory Monday at rain-delayed Pebble Beach, and he looked like he could have used a day off.

Trouble was, there was a tournament going on.

When he failed to birdie the par-5 ninth on the North Course, Woods limped in at 1-under for a six-shot deficit, the largest he has faced after the first round since he trailed by eight strokes in the Bay Hill Invitational 11 months ago. He tied for 58th in that event.

"It's OK. There are a lot of holes to play," Woods said. "I proved that last year. You can go out there and make it up on the weekend, or even tomorrow."

Last year? What about last week?

He was five strokes back going into the final round at Pebble Beach -- seven shots back with seven holes to play -- and still managed to win for the sixth straight time, matching Ben Hogan in 1948 for the second-longest streak on the PGA Tour.

He has his work cut out for him if he is to take another step toward Byron Nelson's record of 11 in a row. And if the first round was any indication, a couple of prime players are lining up to stop him.

"I think guys like Fred Couples (68), Davis Love and myself are really trying to play at a different level, and hopefully have a different winner out on tour," Mickelson said. "Nobody has really done it yet."

Maybe the secret is to give Woods a short week to get ready. After the Monday thriller at Pebble, he was at Torrey Pines at the crack of dawn on Tuesday and spent Wednesday in the pro-am. All of it seemed to take a toll on the 24-year-old Woods.

He was 2-over after three holes, and lucky to be that. He didn't hit a fairway. He didn't even hit a green in regulation. Woods had to make a 15-foot putt on his first hole (No. 10) and a 6-footer just to salvage a bogey on the next one.

By the time he reached the 507-yard 14th hole, Woods wore a look of exhaustion. Even after making a 30-foot eagle to get back to even par, it was all he could do to muster a smile, raise his putter in the air and lick his finger to chalk one up.

He missed a couple of 15-foot birdie putts before his first nine was over, and was muttering to himself on a long walk to the first tee.

"I think I need a day off," he said after his round, evident by the fact he declined to go to the range as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. "I've been grinding pretty hard lately. I've been hitting a lot of balls. Maybe I'm just a little tired and need a little rest."

That's not to say he had no energy. Woods swung so hard with his driver on the 326-yard second hole that he fell a few steps back.

"That's all I've got," he whispered as the ball came one hop short of landing on the green. He lipped out a 3-footer for birdie, however, wasting the good drive.

Still, a tough day at the office for Woods is better than par for the course.

Even though Woods was six off the lead, keep in mind that last year he nearly missed the cut and went on to win by two strokes with a 62-65 on the weekend.

"The guy is awesome, man," said J.L. Lewis, who was in the group at 67. "He can play bad and win, and there is not very many guys that you can say that about. There are other guys who have a lot of talent, but he gets the most out of his."

That's the task facing Love and Mickelson, two supremely talented players who haven't gotten much out of their games lately.

Mickelson failed to win last year for the first time since 1992, ending the longest active streak on the PGA Tour. Love won over $2 million last year, but also failed to win.

Love spent the offseason trying to retool his swing, which he says partially contributed to his back and neck problems last year. The swing held up fine Thursday, even though it took him 10 holes to record a simple par.

He sandwiched a 6-foot birdie around two bogeys, fired off three more birdies before missing another green for bogey, and ended the front nine with two more birdies. The best break may have been a par on No. 14, when he had to take an unplayable lie, hit his third shot into 30 feet and make the putt.

If Love can keep it together until the final round, he still may find Woods waiting for him -- or at least somewhere close -- on Sunday.

Along with winning his last six PGA events, Woods has won 10 of his last 13 tournaments worldwide, and has finished lower than seventh only once since April.

"He's become an intimidating player," Love said. "You start wondering what he's going to do, and you lose track of what you're doing. We saw that happen last week."

Whether they see it again on Sunday is yet to be seen, but Woods has proven during this streak to expect anything.

[bf]DIVOTS:[nf] Along with making changes in his swing, Davis Love III went back to steel shafts in his irons. Love started using graphite shafts in the Tour Championship, and stuck with them until this week. One problem? He says he was hitting his irons too far. "That's why you see graphite in metal woods, but not always in irons," he said. ... Tiger Woods had his favorite driver back in the bag on Thursday, the one with the head that snapped off last Friday. Titleist had it repaired earlier in the week.


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