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Duval aiming to defend Players Championship title

David Duval collects the 1999 Players trophy. Allsport.

Colin Montgomerie believes the only competition at The Players Championship will be for second place -- if Tiger Woods has a great first round.

David Duval sees a different scenario.

"To win this week, I'm going to have to play very, very well. And it's very conceivable the player I might have to beat is Tiger Woods," Duval said today.

"But I can promise you one thing," he said. "Tiger Woods knows he's going to have to play very well to beat me."

The wraparound shades have not dimmed Duval's perspective.

He knows that Woods has won 10 of his last 16 events on the PGA Tour, including last week at the Bay Hill Invitational, when he never trailed over the final 36 holes. He also knows Woods has a death grip on the world's No. 1 ranking.

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But that's all Duval is willing to concede. His message on the eve of the tournament with the richest purse in golf should be taken to heart by the rest of the field:

Give Woods his due. Just don't give him the tournament.

"You can convince yourself conceivably that he's playing better than you are, and that doesn't do you any good," Duval said. "I certainly acknowledge that he's playing great golf. But I don't see how that should transpire into people thinking they can't win golf tournaments.

"If that's the case, they shouldn't be playing."

Perhaps Montgomerie should keep the engine running on his courtesy car.

The Scot, coming off a record seventh straight European Tour money title, said he sensed a pall in the Bay Hill locker room last week after Woods opened with a 69, just one off the lead.

"I think the view in the locker room, without saying it out loud, was the tournament was finished," Montgomerie said. "And it was who is going to finish second?"

This caught Hal Sutton, among others, by surprise.

"He wasn't going in the locker room that I was in," Sutton said. "I've only played with Tiger once this year. I felt it was important that I send a message to me and to him -- that I could beat him, and that he knew I could beat him.''

That was the first two rounds in the Nissan Open. Sutton opened with rounds of 69-67, better than Woods both days. Neither won.

Sutton said he once asked Jack Nicklaus if he could be as dominant now as he was in the 1960s and '70s. The answer was no, because Nicklaus said most players back then didn't think they could beat him.

Sutton doesn't want to fall into that category. Neither does Davis Love III, who has finished second to Woods four times, including last week at Bay Hill.

"I've finished second to a lot of guys," Love said.

Woods will be the favorite this week because he always is. He has 18 PGA Tour victories in 3 1/2 years -- as many as Greg Norman in 15 full seasons -- and has not finished lower than 18th in a stroke-play tournament the past year.

The TPC at Sawgrass could present the stiffest test.

Woods won the first of his three straight U.S. Amateurs at Sawgrass in 1994, but has never shot in the 60s in 12 rounds at The Players Championship, when the rough is shaggy and the greens like concrete.

"Sometimes this golf course plays very difficult," Woods said. "Other times, I haven't played well. It's one of those things I haven't put together yet. Hopefully, this year will be different."

One thing never changes.

The Players Championship, despite its $6 million purse and the strongest, deepest field of the year, is still something of a tune-up for Woods.

"It's my last tournament before The Masters," he said. "More importantly, this is the best field on a very tough golf course. That's very similar to what we're going to face two weeks from now. If they wanted to have a fifth major, this would be it."

The course was so difficult last year that Duval won with a 73-74 on the weekend. It was his biggest victory ever and enabled him to supplant Woods as No. 1 in the world for the next three months.

Duval can't catch him in the Official World Golf Ranking for another year at least. But he wouldn't mind a crack at him this week.


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