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Tiger Woods returns to action at Byron Nelson

Byron Nelson has seen the finest golfers ever. In fact, he was one of them. But he is certain who's the best of the best.

"Tiger Woods," said the Hall of Famer, who is hosting this week's Byron Nelson Classic for the 35th consecutive season.

Woods is playing for the first time since he earned his third Masters title a month ago. He hasn't won anything yet this week, except Nelson's vote as the best player ever.

"I saw Tiger play more than once every year from the time that he's 14," Nelson said. "And I never saw a player at the age of 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26 that played as well at that age as he did.

"He's exciting to watch. I love to watch him play. Everybody does."

Nelson won 52 PGA Tour titles from 1935-51, following in the footsteps of Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen. Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead dominated the tour until Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus made their mark.

"But if you look at the way they played, every era, these players, they have gotten better," said Nelson, 90. "There's not any player that won in those years that wasn't better than the group before the leader, the top guys, not any of them."

Woods is the imcomparable star of his era, winning 31 PGA Tour titles in five-plus seasons. He also has seven major triumphs, including his last start at Augusta, which was a month ago.

"Not sure how rusty my game will be," he said on his website. "But hopefully, I'll improve each day."

Woods won this event in 1997 and tied for third last year, finishing three shots behind Robert Damron, who is back to defend his only title in six years on tour. He defeated Scott Verplank on the fourth playoff hole last season.

The tournament gets under way Thursday at the TPC Four Seasons Resort Las Colinas and the Cottonwood Valley Course, both of which are par-70s.

Woods isn't the only star player in the field. Eight of the top nine golfers in the World Golf Rankings are chasing the $864,000 top prize.

Among them are second-ranked Phil Mickelson and third-ranked Ernie Els of South Africa, who won this event in 1996 and 1995, respectively.

Also in the field are Sergio Garcia of Spain, David Duval, Vijay Singh of Fiji, David Toms and Chris DiMarco, who are fifth through ninth in the rankings. World No. 4 Retief Goosen is in Europe.

Justin Leonard is back in action, returning to his hometown three weeks after winning the Worldcom Classic at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Born and raised in Dallas, Leonard has seven PGA Tour wins, including the 1997 British Open. But he said a victory here would be significant.

"Well, it would be very special just being here in my hometown and have Mr. Nelson so involved in the tournament," Leonard said. "He's out here about 20 hours a day this week, so it is pretty special."

Nelson sent Leonard a note of congratulations a few weeks ago and said it would be nice for him to duplicate the feat at his event.

"Again, he's put it on me, as usual," Leonard said. "I think my game is in a little better shape to maybe make that come true this year."

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