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Can anyone catch Tiger Woods?

They have tried lengthening courses; they have tried shortening courses. They have gone with heavy rough; they have gone with no rough. Jesper Parnevik even introduced him to his Swedish nanny.

But one thing hasn't changed: Everyone else still is chasing Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour. And they're not closing the gap.

Woods may not have been his normal dominant self last season, but five wins and two majors in 18 Tour starts easily earned him his fourth consecutive Player of the Year honor. And while he clearly isn't the same near-flawless golfer who won 17 titles and four majors in 41 starts in 1999 and 2000, Woods still has his overlapping grip firmly around his competition.

Ever since Woods became No. 1 in the official world golf rankings -- which uses a statistical formula based on performance and strength of fields -- in 1999, he has been pulling away from the pack. His current total of 15.39 points leads No. 2 Phil Mickelson by 7.84. That's the second-largest gap entering a golf season since the world rankings started in 1994. Woods enjoyed a 17.71-point gap over Mickelson to start the 2001 season, but Mickelson cut the margin to 6.30 points entering last year.

While Woods has remained constant at No. 1, the names of his closest pursuers have occasionally changed. Mickelson is No. 2, but previously that spot was held by Ernie Els, David Duval and Mark O'Meara. Woods and Els are the only two players to remain in the top five since 1997.

The Tour has slowly evolved into three factions: the haves, the have-nots and Tiger.

"I don't think anyone is closer to him than they have (been) in the last four to five years," Mark Calcavecchia said. "He clearly is the best. Everyone else is so equal it's hard for anyone to break out and be dominant like Tiger. Everyone is battling for that second to 10th spot. If they play the same tournaments, which a lot of them do, it's hard to win a lot of them."

Unless you're Tiger. He's won 27 of the past 78 events he's entered in the past four years for a winning percentage of 34.6, meaning he wins once every three weeks he shows up. So much for his relationship with ex-Parnevik nanny Elin Nordegren hurting his career.

Woods is giving the rest of the Tour a head start -- sort of like in horse racing -- by spotting his closest rivals a month's action while he continues to recover from off-season arthroscopic knee surgery. He's missing from the Mercedes Championships, which starts Thursday, and expects to return to action by the middle of next month.


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