Woods faces biggest challenge in five years

Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Forget the streaks and statistics that identify the best two players in golf. The real comparison starts now.

Tiger Woods teed off at dawn Tuesday with a full moon fading over the Pacific Ocean. The Buick Invitational is his first PGA Tour event since he left Kapalua a month ago. He's been gone so long that caddie Steve Williams spent much of the morning applying sandpaper to the grips of a new set of irons.

Woods finished his round on the South course at Torrey Pines about the time Vijay Singh sauntered over to the 10th tee on the North course to start his practice round.

They could not have been farther apart, but at least they're in the same tournament.

Singh has been the talk of the tour the last couple of months as he moves closer to No. 1 in the world, a position only Woods has occupied since winning the '99 PGA Championship at Medinah.

The Fijian has 12 consecutive finishes in the top 10, the longest streak since Jack Nicklaus' 14 in 1977. Singh's victory Sunday at Pebble Beach was his third in his last nine PGA Tour events.

The latest surge brought him to within 3.08 points of Woods in the world ranking, the narrowest margin since the system was adjusted two years ago.

''Vijay is trying very hard to close the gap, and if you look at the points, he has closed the gap severely,'' Darren Clarke said. ''He's playing fantastic golf. I watched Sunday at Pebble Beach, and every shot was at the flag. He's playing great. His confidence is high. And things are going the right way.''

Clarke then paused before presenting the big picture.

''Just the same, Tiger hasn't been out here,'' Clarke said. ''I think there's always going to be comparisons and stuff, but whenever Tiger gets back out there, then you'll really start to see who's doing what.''

That's what makes these next three weeks so intriguing.

Both are playing the Buick Invitational. Both are expected to play next week at Riviera. And if the stars align, which they never do at La Costa, both could wind up going head-to-head in the final of the Match Play Championship.

In some respects, memories can be short on the PGA Tour.

While a dozen consecutive top 10s is impressive, Clarke was quick to point out that Woods had six straight victories in 2000, not to mention four straight majors that followed.

One of the steadiest players ever since he showed up on the PGA Tour in 1993, Singh has finished in the top 10 in 39 percent of his tour events. Woods has been in the top 10 just short of 60 percent of the time; he hasn't missed a cut in his last 115 tournaments.

Singh has been playing great, no doubt.

Woods, ahem, is no slouch himself.

The ranking shows Singh at No. 2, although he sure has looked like the No. 1 player over the last six months.

''Right now, yes,'' Robert Allenby agreed. ''But you've got to give it some time. If Tiger wins this week, that will change everything.''

Woods is the defending champion at Torrey Pines.

A year ago, when Ernie Els was winning four of his first five tournaments around the world and Phil Mickelson was making fun of Woods' equipment, Woods returned from knee surgery to win by four shots.

In six appearances at the Buick Invitational, he has won twice and never finished lower than fifth.

All that does is add to the pressure Woods now faces.

Woods lost some of his mystique last year when he failed to win a major for the first time in five years.

Then, Singh called him out by stating clearly that his goal was to win the money list. The hard-working Fijian proceeded to finish second, first and second in his next three tournaments to wrap up the title.

''Vijay is not scared to go out and give it everything he's got,'' Allenby said. ''He wants to be No. 1 in the world. Obviously, he's proving to everyone that he's the main challenger.''

David Duval was the last player to challenge Woods like this. He won the money title and had the lowest scoring average in 1998. He started the next season with a nine-shot victory in the Mercedes Championships, closed with a 59 to win the Bob Hope Classic, and replaced Woods at No. 1 with 11 victories in a span of 34 tournaments.

Woods was overhauling his swing at the time, winning just once in 1998 and not kicking into high gear until he won the PGA Championship at Medinah. Since then, no one has seriously challenged his dominance.

All that has changed in the last six months.

''Vijay is making the game look ridiculously easy right now,'' Clarke said. ''Just like Tiger does.''

Singh showed up on the practice range Tuesday morning, stopped after his third full shot and told caddie Dave Renwick, ''You have to watch this.''

He held his swing at the top and pointed to his position. Singh noticed a flaw creeping into his swing over the weekend at Pebble Beach, and he wanted to make sure it doesn't happen again.

He's always working. He's always playing.

And lately, he's always around the top of the leaderboard.

The next time Woods goes more than a month without winning, they might not say he's in a slump.

They'll just wonder if he's still No. 1.



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