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Sergio-Tiger duel pending

Rivals paired for today's final round at Bay Hill, which is being threatened by rain.

He scissor-kicked his way into the consciousness of golf fans, standing up to the game's most prominent player. And when Sergio Garcia nearly toppled Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, a stirring rivalry among two talented young players was all but assured.

Much has happened in the ensuing 18 months, little good for Garcia. While the Spaniard captured one European PGA Tour event, Woods added three more major titles and 13 PGA Tour titles.

Some rivalry.

So it is with great anticipation that Garcia steps to the first tee today _ weather permitting _ in the final round of the Bay Hill Invitational, not only in the same threesome with Woods, but with a chance to win his first PGA Tour event.

"More than going head-to-head with Tiger, I'm really happy to have a chance of winning the tournament," said Garcia, 21, whose 4-under 68 Saturday at the Bay Hill Club left him one shot behind Woods. "I think that's the most important thing. If I'm able to win the tournament, I'm able to beat Tiger. I'm really happy for that. I'm happy to see that I'm playing well."

Garcia is in need of a victory as much as Woods, 25, who is seeking his first win of the season.

Much has been made of Woods' supposed slump, the one that has seen him go eight PGA Tour events without a win, a streak that is the third-longest of his PGA Tour career.

But Woods, who has won 24 times, including five major championships, contends he is playing well, that it's just a matter of time before he wins again.

"It's hard to be disappointed when, through my first six tournaments, I'm 75-under (par)," said Woods, whose 6-under 66 put him at 204, 12 under par, through 54 holes. "That's not playing bad. It's just, I didn't win. That's part of the game. I try, and sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't."

Not everything is going Woods' way. On Thursday, he made triple bogey from the middle of the fairway at the eighth hole. Saturday, it was a bogey at the 16th, a 517-yard par 5 that seven of the top-10 players birdied. It was the easiest hole on the course, but Woods found a fairway bunker off the tee, then went for the green with a 5-iron and splashed his approach.

"I know I can hit it 200 yards downwind out of a bunker, but I just hit it fat," Woods said. "Just made a bad swing and it cost me a shot. Possibly two."

Woods rebounded, however, with 4-iron to 1 foot for birdie at the 219-yard, par-3 17th.

That could be the margin necessary for victory today without hitting a shot. Because of a poor weather forecast, tee times were moved up, with the leaders teeing off at 9:48 this morning. (NBC will show the final-round telecast on tape delay at 3 p.m.) If rain comes early and half the field is unable to complete the round, the outcome will revert to the standings after 54 holes.

That would give the title to Woods, who was one shot ahead of Garcia and two ahead of Chris Perry (69). "I'm just going to, hopefully, kind of sneak up on them and shoot a good round," said Perry, who will be in the same threesome with Woods and Garcia.

Vijay Singh was three shots back after 66. Greg Norman (68), Lee Janzen (69) and Phil Mickelson (70) were in a group of six players four shots behind Woods.

Garcia had been a pro for two months when he nearly stole the 1999 PGA from Woods, who played the final nine holes in 3 over while Garcia put on the heat. In the most memorable moment of the tournament, Garcia pulled off a closed-eyes shot from behind a tree that traveled 189 yards onto the green. As he followed the ball's flight, Garcia sprinted into the fairway, and jumped into the air to watch where it landed. He saved par, but finished one stroke behind Woods.

Later that year at the Ryder Cup, Garcia was paired with Sweden's Jesper Parnevik and defeated Woods and Tom Lehman in a foursomes match. And he knocked off Woods at last summer's made-for-TV Battle at Bighorn, _ which came a day after Woods had won the NEC Invitational.

"That helped me a lot, but it's a different thing," Garcia said. "We are playing stroke play. It's totally different. More than focusing on beating him, you've got to focus on the tournament."