04/10/2005 11:00PM

Tiger no longer a bank-breaker


Any horse racing fan, even if he doesn't follow golf, had to appreciate the fact that the Masters turned into a match race on Sunday.

Tiger Woods and Chris DiMarco were lengths ahead of the field (or, in golf terms, seven strokes in front of their nearest competitors). Adding to the drama was the fact that Woods was the undisputed favorite while DiMarco was a longshot, even if most viewers didn't know he was 60-1 at the Las Vegas Hilton sports book before the tournament started, while Woods closed at 4-1.

After rain suspended play Saturday before the third round could be completed, DiMarco held a four-stroke lead over Woods, and the Hilton's golf oddsmaker, Jeff Sherman, made DiMarco even money to win the tourney and Woods 6-5. After the third round was completed early Sunday morning - and Woods had made a Masters-record seven straight birdies - Woods led DiMarco by three strokes. Supported by the fact that Woods has never lost a major when leading heading into the final round, Sherman made Woods 1-7 to win and DiMarco 6-1.

But DiMarco battled all day and was in position to force a playoff when Woods, who held a two-stroke lead with two holes to play after his lip-hanging chip shot that everyone has probably seen by now, bogeyed the final two holes.

It was a battle that electrified the sports books here in Vegas.

"It was a rare time that golf was featured on the main screens with sound," Sherman said, explaining that usually golf takes a back seat to basketball, football, or baseball games on Sunday afternoons.

During the short time before the two players teed off for the playoff, the Hilton posted Woods as a -200 favorite (risk $2 for every $1 you want to profit) with DiMarco offered at +170 (profit $1.70 for every $1 wagered).

When Woods won with a birdie putt on the first playoff hole, it ended his streak of 10 straight majors without a victory. And it rewarded bettors who backed Woods, who opened at 7-1 when Masters odds first went up last summer. The Hilton had him as low as 3-1 last week before closing at 4-1.

A few years ago, when Woods was winning seven of 11 majors and bettors were backing him no matter how low the odds were, a victory by him was usually bad news for the books. But Sherman said that's not the case anymore.

"We did well on our odds to win the tournament," Sherman said. "It's like any other sport - like when North Carolina and Illinois were playing for the NCAA title - if the favorites in the future book are there at the end, it's usually a good sign. In fact, we were in such a good position that we could afford to bump him back up earlier in the week."

Sherman said Woods doesn't make or break the books as much as he used to because there is more parity.

"Even when Tiger is playing well now, the talent on the PGA Tour is so deep that there's a lot of attractive golfers that bettors are going to feel have a chance," Sherman said. "Everyone knows the Big Four" - Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, and Vijay Singh, in addition to Woods - "but there are also talented younger players like Luke Donald, Adam Scott, and Ryan Moore."

Sherman didn't waste any time posting odds for the next major, the U.S. Open on June 16-19 at Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, N.C. Woods is the 3-1 favorite, with Phil Mickelson at 6-1, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh at 8-1, and then a dropoff to Retief Goosen at 15-1 and no one else below 30-1. DiMarco is listed at 40-1.

Ladies say, "We got next"

In addition to posting the U.S. Open odds (and this week's PGA Tour stop, the MCI Heritage in Hilton Head, S.C.), Sherman also put up odds for the LPGA Takefuji Classic that takes place this Thursday through Saturday at the Las Vegas Country Club, which just happens to be across the street from the Hilton sports book.

"I used to do more women's golf odds, like their U.S. Open and LPGA Championship, but it's just when they come to town that it commands any real interest," Sherman said.

Some of the LPGA's top draws - such as Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie - aren't playing this week, so Sherman made Cristie Kerr the 5-1 favorite, with Lorena Ochoa at 6-1 and Karrie Webb at 8-1 atop of list of 49 players, with a "field" bet offered at 5-1.

Sherman also has five head-to-head matchups. The featured one is Ochoa -120 vs. Webb at even money, though the one to get the most interest might be between two local golfers, Natalie Gulbis (best-known as the girlfriend of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) and Kim Saiki, both at -110.

Dragsters in town, too

Women's professional golf isn't the only big sporting event coming to Las Vegas this week. The sixth annual NHRA Summitracing.com Nationals are Friday through Sunday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

And there will also be a local flavor, with Rod Fuller the only Las Vegan in the Top Fuel division. Fuller, who won his first career Top Fuel race Sunday in Houston at the Spring Nationals, will be among a group of NHRA drivers at a free autograph session from 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the ESPN Zone at the New York-New York hotel-casino.

Race book notes

Wednesday will be a big day at the Coast Casinos race books (The Orleans, Gold Coast, Barbary Coast, Suncoast) as their weekly contest has a carryover of $41,455 in its 5-for-5 bonus. The entry fee is just $5, with a limit of 10 entries per person, and players try to pick the winners of the first five races at Santa Anita. Last week, there were more than 1,600 entries, so there's a very good chance that this Wednesday's jackpot will exceed $50,000.

* Up north in Reno, Wednesday is also the start of the Harrah's Reno Horse Handicapping Tournament, which runs through Friday. The entry fee is $500, and participants make 10 mythical $200 across-the-board wagers on each day.