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Sutton proves latest rival to Woods

There's a new wrinkle in the ongoing search for a rival for Tiger Woods.

Actually, a couple of wrinkles.

Hal Sutton turns 42 on Friday. Some players his age are considering part-time work in the broadcast booth. Others not much older already are looking ahead to golf's ultimate mulligan, the Senior PGA Tour.

Not Sutton.

The guy once known as the next Jack Nicklaus is playing like he's trying to make up for lost time. Not too long ago he was in the "bleakest, blackest spot you can think of," ashamed to be seen on the driving range because he had no idea where the next ball was going.

Just look at him now.

His victory Sunday in the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic was his second this year, third in his last 15 tournaments and fifth dating to the Texas Open in the fall of 1998. Only two players have won as many PGA Tour events since then -- Woods (11) and David Duval (5).

Woods and Duval are still Nos. 1 and 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, still the two players everyone would like to see clash on the back nine Sunday of a major championship, or any tournament that's not a made-for-television sideshow.

Previous challengers to Woods have included Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, and Sergio Garcia, even though he hasn't won in America. What they have in common is their youth, not to mention the fact a so-called rivalry with any of them has never taken root.

Why not Hal?

Who said rivals have to be in the same age bracket, especially in a game that often treats 20-year-olds no differently than 40-year-olds?

Sutton saw this coming when he was asked after winning Greensboro whether he felt as though he was one of the toughest players in the world to beat.

"Y'all are trying to build a rivalry here, aren't you?" he asked in his thick Louisiana drawl. "Tiger Woods is a great player. And he makes his presence felt everywhere he goes. If y'all think that I deserve to be mentioned in that same paragraph, then I feel good about where my game is at right now."

It's not simply because Sutton has won more than anyone (except Woods) in the last year. It's how he's won, and in one particular case, whom he's beaten.

In four of the five tournaments he has won since turning 40, Sutton has taken a lead into the back nine on Sunday and refused to budge.

Justin Leonard found that out in the Texas Open. Lee Janzen learned it in the Canadian Open. Andrew Magee knew it before he tried to catch Sutton in Greensboro.

"This isn't his first rodeo," Magee said.

Woods was the victim in The Players Championship, when Sutton played as though he had something to prove. He led by one stroke going into the final round and never lost the lead over two days.

What made the victory especially compelling was that Sutton called out Woods in the days leading up to their final-round showdown, saying what few of his peers had dared to utter -- that Tiger was human, that he knew he could beat the No. 1 player in the world.

"Tiger Woods sets the expectations high, doesn't he?" Sutton said. "If you want to play in the same game with him, you have to elevate your own thinking."

Sutton has done that in what has become an incredible renaissance in his career.

He was a lot like Woods at that age, winning The Players Championship one month before his 25th birthday and the PGA Championship -- the latter a wire-to-wire victory over Nicklaus -- four months later in 1983. Sutton feels as though he is playing just as well now, and the results seem to bear that out.

Among active players on the PGA Tour, only Greg Norman has won more since turning 40 -- six times. Tom Kite also won six times after his 40th birthday, while Jack Nicklaus won five times (three were majors), and Arnold Palmer won four.

The record is 17, held by the ageless Sam Snead.

Sutton is regarded now as one of the best ball-strikers in golf and certainly the most feared driver. He missed only one fairway in the final round of The Players Championship, and only two fairways on Sunday in his victory at Greensboro.

He is fifth on the PGA Tour this year in driving accuracy and fourth in greens in regulation, third in total driving (length and accuracy), and second in saving par from off the green. It all adds up to him being second on the money list behind Woods.

Where will it all lead?

The only thing Sutton's comeback lacks is a major, although The Players Championship felt like one. Sutton hadn't made the cut in The Masters since 1985, but he tied for eighth this year. The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is his next chance, and Sutton is sure to be considered one of the favorites.

Right up there with Woods.

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