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SIMPLE CHANGE OF FORTUNE IS WHAT TIGER NEEDS MOST

Don't be surprised if he starts creeping up the leader board, if by late today he's a contender, if by Sunday he's taking aim at another title. Tiger Woods is right. His swing is coming around. What he could use is a change of fortune to go with it.

Woods saw it all (or so he hopes) during his two-day first round of the weather-ravaged Masters. He bounced a dead-on approach shot off a flagstick and into a bunker. He putted into Rae's Creek. He duck-hooked a drive into the trees some 100 yards away from the tee box, then found another grove of pines with what was meant as a modest recovery shot. And that was just in the 11 holes he played Thursday.

Woods returned Friday to find the golf gods had not yet granted him amnesty. His tee shot on the par-3 sixth was dead in line with the flag, landed 5 feet away, hesitated, began to trickle backward, gathering momentum and never applying the brakes until it had ridden the diabolically slippery slope to a resting place in the fringe 50 feet away.

What was it three-time winner Sam Snead once said of Augusta? "These greens are so fast I have to hold my putter over the ball and hit it with the shadow."

Woods' ensuing Texas wedge chugged toward the top of the rise, the ball making like the little train that could, although, gasping, it couldn't.

It boomeranged back from where it came, applying another layer of consternation to a face already primed with four coats of frustration.

What was it '03 PGA champion Shaun Micheel said of Augusta on Thursday? "This course makes you look silly sometimes. It's a humbling golf course."

Two holes later, Woods was back in the trees, endeavoring to will a golf ball struck off pine needles through a faraway gap the size of a parking space. He failed in the wishful effort, the ball careening off a branch, which might have been the first break he'd cashed in 24 hours. The missile deflected left instead of right, returning to the proper fairway, and you know what Woods had to be thinking at the point. "Finally, my luck has changed!"

Woods' initial journey around Augusta National was more safari than stroll through the azaleas, more adventure than affirmation of a player once ranked No. 1 in the world a record 264 consecutive weeks. But the upshot is that the 2-over 74 he put on the board was in defiance of five bogeys and served as roundabout testament to the number of quality shots he struck. It also marks his lowest opening-round score at the Masters since he successfully defended the title in 2002.

He's seven shots behind surprise leader David Howell, six in arrears of the infinitely more legitimate Vijay Singh and four back of defending champion Phil Mickelson. Woods will have to leapfrog 26 players to secure his third green jacket, just as his good buddy, Mark O'Meara, did following an opening 74 in 1998.

It's evident that Woods is honing in, that the swing changes he's made since splitting with coach Butch Harmon have begun to get results. He completed just one hole of the storm-shortened second round, a 30-foot putt falling two rolls shy of what would have been only his second birdie ever at No. 1.

"Last year, I was just getting started with the changes, and this year I'm just putting on the finishing touches on the changes," Woods said this week. "Last year, I was just hoping to put myself there in contention with a short game and putting. This year, I know that my ball-striking is there. It's in me. I've proven it to myself a number of times so far, late last fall and early this year, so I know it's in there. So that's a big difference."

There's little sympathy out there for Woods. None of his peers besides possibly O'Meara are wishing him well, rooting for his full recovery. Tri-leader Chris DiMarco admitted as much Thursday. And what was it Sergio Garcia said while Woods was en route to the 2002 U.S. Open title that would give him an overlapping Grand Slam? Oh, yes: "If you get the luck of getting the good side of the draw, like somebody seems to do in these kinds of tournaments, and if you're the best player in the world and you make a lot of putts, it's tough to beat a guy when things are going like that."

The players continue relishing the thought that Woods is getting a full dose of what the rest of them felt throughout his dominant stretch. He's without a major since 2002. His invincibility has vanished. Good fortune has dumped him on the curb. But what was it Jack Nicklaus said about Woods this week? "Like anybody who has dominated the game, myself maybe, or whoever it might have been at the time, I didn't have to play my best to win, and Tiger doesn't have to play his best to win."

He's closing in, and therein lies the warning.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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