Tiger Looking for Breakthrough at Nissan

Thu Feb 20, 3:33 AM ET
By DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer

LOS ANGELES - Tiger Woods made his PGA Tour debut at Riviera as a 16-year-old in the 1992 Nissan Open, so nervous that his driver felt like a sledge hammer.

"I will never forget how heavy that club felt," he said. "When I took my practice swing, fine; no big deal. Then, it got heavy just because I realized I had to hit a shot. And that was pretty nerve-racking."

He can't complain about the start. Woods made birdie on the first hole.

Now if he can just figure out how to finish.

Eleven years, 35 tour victories and eight major championships later, the Nissan Open continues to be an elusive title for the world's No. 1 player.

It is the only tournament he has played at least five times without winning.

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

Not much escapes Woods.

Someone pointed out last year that he had never won a major championship on a par-70 course. He went on to win the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black a par 70 by three strokes.

Phil Mickelson called out Woods in a magazine interview by suggesting he used inferior equipment. They were in the final group together last week at the Buick Invitational and Woods was five strokes better than Lefty over the first 11 holes, cruising to an easy win.

This week's challenge comes from a tournament.

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

The only time he has lost a playoff on the PGA Tour came at the 1998 Nissan Open against Billy Mayfair when it was played at Valencia Country Club. The following year, Woods finished two strokes behind Ernie Els at Riviera.

He hasn't finished in the top 10 as a pro the other three times.

Even more confounding is that the Nissan Open is his hometown event. Woods grew up in nearby Cypress and has been coming to the tournament for longer than he can remember.

"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 won in a runaway.

"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."