Originally created 02/20/03

A new challenge for Woods: Riviera



LOS ANGELES -- First, it was Phil Mickelson who called out Tiger Woods by suggesting he used inferior equipment.

This week, the challenge comes from a golf tournament.

The 1992 Nissan Open was the first PGA Tour event Woods played, when he was 16. He missed the cut that year and the next, and his success as a professional is only slightly better.

While he has lost in a playoff and tied for second another year, the Nissan Open remains the only tournament he has played at least five times without winning.

"You don't think he's aware of that?" Mark O'Meara said Wednesday. "I think he's looking forward to this."

The timing couldn't be better. Riviera Country Club is a little bit longer than the last time Woods played it two years ago, which always helps. Plus, he is coming off a dominant performance last week in the Buick Invitational, winning by four strokes.

Still, his lack of success at his hometown tournament is a mystery.

Asked Wednesday why he has never won it, Woods said: "I don't know. It's just about getting the right breaks at the right time and playing good. That helps."

His closest call wasn't even at Riviera. He lost in a playoff for the only time on the PGA Tour in 1998 to Billy Mayfair when the tournament was played at nearby Valencia Country Club. The following year, he finished two strokes behind Ernie Els at Riviera.

"I've been coming up here ever since I was a little kid and watching the tournament," said Woods, who grew up nearby in Cypress. "I've come close to winning this a couple of times. Hopefully, I can get it done this week."

If he does, it won't come against Els.

The battle everyone wants to see - Woods vs. Els - will have to wait until next week at the earliest, and more likely next month in Florida.

Els is the hottest player in golf, having won the first two PGA Tour events this year and four of his five tournaments worldwide. Woods was a mere spectator, sitting out two months recovering from knee surgery.

Els decided against playing in the Nissan Open, waiting until the Match Play Championship next week at La Costa. The only way he will play against Woods is if both win five 18-hole matches, something the top seeds have never done.

Both are scheduled to play in Dubai, but war prospects have put that in doubt, and Woods said he would not add Doral to his schedule if he stayed home.

"We are not going to be playing that many events together," Woods said. "On top of that, we both have to play well at the same time for us to have a challenge. And if you think about it, you don't really face the same guy again and again.

"Hopefully, we can get there at the same tournament, because that would be a lot of fun for both of us."

Woods won't have to worry about Mickelson this week, either. Lefty isn't playing at Riviera, although he still managed to raise the issue of Woods' equipment again.

During a conference call for the Ford Championship at Doral, Mickelson said that he should not have said Woods used inferior equipment - but added that he was right.

"What kills me is that all of you guys that printed it and found it easy to lay into me - none of you admitted the accuracy of my statement," Mickelson said.

Mickelson routinely hit the ball farther than Woods during their final round at Torrey Pines, although Woods kept the ball in the fairway far more often and ended up six strokes ahead.

"When I try to be honest and upfront and give a little insight, I get reamed for it," Mickelson said. "I don't know what else to say other than the only guy to win with other than the Pro V1x ball is Tiger."

Woods uses a Nike Golf ball.

The majority of PGA Tour players have used Titleist balls for more than 50 years.

Wood struggled at times with his driving last week until it mattered, hitting the first five fairways in the final round to build a big margin he never lost. He might not use a driver that often at Riviera because the fairways are running fast.

The key again will be keeping the ball in play and making putts, same as always. It matters even more when a tournament seems to have your number.

"It's always a goal to win a tournament you haven't won before," Woods said. "I just need to play well and, hopefully, I can put myself in position."