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Hot streak gives off extra aura for Woods; Intimidation factor may surface at Augusta


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He is the overwhelming favorite to win the 64th Masters, having all but clinched his second straight Player of the Year award on the PGA Tour before the season's first major. His lead in the world rankings is so significant that it could take another millennium -- or least a couple of years -- for someone else to claim the top spot.

So it is difficult to imagine Tiger Woods being intimidated, yet he can remember it clearly.

"It's the first and only time," Woods said yesterday. "I was 11 years old and I was playing a 12-year-old and I had a chance to win if I played a good, solid round. There was a 290-yard par-4, and at 12 years old, the guy drove the green. I was really taken back by that and felt there was no way I could compete."

And what happened? "I ended up beating him in that tournament," said Woods.

Now 24 and three years removed from his history-making, record-setting, 12-shot victory at Augusta National, Woods has the same effect on many, though not all, of his peers. He has won three tournaments this year, but he has also lost in head-to-head battles with Phil Mickelson, Darren Clarke and and Hal Sutton.

The streak-breaking loss to Mickelson in the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, the match-play thumping Woods was given by Clarke in the final of the World Golf Championships at La Costa in late February and Sutton's one-shot win in the recent Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass will give those with enough courage -- not to mention enough game -- a glimmer of hope many don't seem to possess.

"I know right now people think any event he plays in is Tiger's event to win, which not too long ago that was the case with me," said David Duval, who came to last year's Masters as the world's top-ranked player, a position he since relinquished to Woods. "So I think this is my event to win or lose this week."

The issue of intimidation has come into play at a number of tournaments in which Woods has played this year. Davis Love III admitted that he felt a bit overmatched by Woods even before they teed it up in the world match-play tournament. Sutton made a point to welcome the challenge of facing Woods down the stretch two weeks ago.

"He [Sutton] said you're putting him [Woods] up there bigger than the game of golf. Nobody's bigger than the game of golf," said Greg Norman, who despite his own disasters at the Masters was often considered the favorite to win. "Davis is a good friend of mine. But when you read an article like that, they're already beaten."

And how does Norman feel about Woods?

"As long as he lets his clubs do the talking and gets that boost of confidence every time, he's going to be a hard guy to beat," said Norman, who finished third last year.

Woods is a 9-4 favorite to win this week, enormously prohibitive odds when you consider that as the choice among London bookmakers to win last year's British Open, Woods was a 5-1 pick. That happens when a player has become as dominating as Woods, whose stretch of 10 victories in his past 16 events includes a now-broken streak of six straight.

"People are talking about that every week I play," Woods said of being thrust in the role of favorite. "That hasn't changed. Since I've been playing well, you just become the center of attention."

Those who have to battle Woods on the PGA Tour are not the only players who seemingly cower in his presence. Colin Montgomerie of Scotland was recently criticized during The Players Championship for saying the tournament was all but over after Woods shot an opening-round 69.

Three years ago, Montgomerie publicly challenged Woods at Augusta when the then 21-year-old built a three-stroke lead after two rounds. Playing together in the third round, Woods shot 65 to stretch his lead to nine as Montgomerie collapsed with an 81.

"It was the easiest 65 I've ever seen," Montgomerie recalled yesterday, the memory of that afternoon still painful.

Woods is a different player -- and person -- than he was three years ago. He is more under control on the course, having gone from relying more on his still awesome power to being able to hit all kinds of shots. He is also more settled away from the course, due in large part to his nearly two-year relationship with Joanna Jagoda.

"I've changed quite a bit," said Woods, who also recently became the PGA Tour's all-time money-winner after his presence markedly increased the purses. "My life has changed. My physical being has changed. I guess just part of growing as a person and growing physically and mentally."

Asked if his jacket size has change -- a reference to the green jacket given each year to the Masters champion -- Woods smiled.

"It's gotten a little bigger," he said.

The odds will shrink even more should Woods get off to a good start when the tournament begins tomorrow. One thing is certain: While many might be intimidated by him, as others were by Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen, Woods doesn't fear any player or situation he faces.

"There's no point being intimidated on the golf course," he said. "I have a lot of belief in my own game and own abilities and believe in them. I've put in the hard work. If you didn't put in the work, then obviously you can be intimidated because you don't know what you can accomplish. I know what I can accomplish. I know the shots I can pull off."

64th Masters

When: Tomorrow-Sunday

Where: Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club

TV: USA tomorrow-Friday, 4-6: 30 p.m. and 9-11: 30 p.m.; Ch. 13 Saturday, 3: 30-6 p.m.; Ch. 13 Sunday, 4-7 p.m.

Field: 95 players, including six amateurs

Defending champion: Jose Maria Olazabal

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