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Tiger Woods still the one to beat

Pretty damn good. Impressive, if a little below par. Largely in a slump when it really counted.

Take your pick. These are the three likely answers you would get from Joe Player, Joe Public or Joe Journalist to the question: how do you rate the golf produced by Tiger Woods during 2003?

Ask Woods the same question and he would probably reply: "I think my year has been pretty good, pretty satisfying. I've won five times, although I just couldn't get any positive momentum going in the majors for a sustained period.

"But I think, overall, this entire year has been very consistent."

The real answer probably lies somewhere between Tiger's own viewpoint and the feelings expressed by Joe Public, the average golf fan.

Even though Woods has failed to win a major this year for the first time since 1998, he remains, by some distance, the game's leading player.

His two-shot victory in the WGC-American Express Championship on Sunday earned him his fifth PGA Tour title of 2003, and could well have secured him the prestigious player of the year award for a record fifth straight season.

True champions tend to perform at their best when the going gets tough, and Woods rose to the challenge posed by the lightning-fast greens and deceptively spongy rough at Capital City Club's Crabapple Course.

Despite changing his driver for the second time this year on the eve of the tournament, he clinched the 39th win of his professional career from a field including 48 of the world's top 50 golfers.

The 27-year-old American carded scores of 67, 66, 69 and 72, finishing at six-under 274 on one of the toughest courses to host championship golf.

"Any time you get to play against the best players…you can't get any better than that," Woods told reporters after his winner's cheque of $1,050,000 lifted him to the top of the U.S. money list.

"That's when it's the most challenging because you get the guys who are the best players in the field. It's not a watered-down field."

Of course, Woods's critics will argue the world number one was never put under any real pressure in the final round, that he was able to win despite ending the week with three bogeys in his last five holes for a two-over-par 72.

Vijay Singh and Tim Herron, his closest challengers, failed to make an impression when it really mattered.

Twice major champion Singh wasted good birdie opportunities from the fairway on nine and 10 and, as he became more frustrated, his challenge fragmented over the back nine.

Herron, affectionately known as "Lumpy" by his peers, twice got to within a stroke of the lead with birdies on nine and 12. But, like Singh, he could not kick on, and tied for second after collecting four bogeys and a birdie in his last five holes.

Woods, exuding confidence off the tee whenever he took out his big-headed Nike protype driver, consistently powered the ball in excess of 300 yards -- and with increasing accuracy.

After sealing his seventh victory in 13 World Golf Championship individual events, he was asked if this was the best he had swung the club all year. "Close," he replied.

The eight-times major champion, for most of the week, was also in good touch with his putter. But perhaps the key factor in his success, and a recurrent theme in his career, was his ability to outsmart his rivals.

Like a chess grand master, Woods always seems to know the ideal strategy for the moment, whether to attack or defend, whether to take risks or play conservatively.

Starting the last day with a two-shot cushion over Singh, he opted to play the first four holes as conservatively as possible while closely monitoring his challengers.

Four rock-solid pars were followed by a birdie three at the fifth and thereafter Woods, helped by a brilliant flop shot from the rough at 10 and clutch putts at 13 and 16, remained in control.

"Playing a difficult golf course puts more emphasis on good ball-striking and course management," said the world number one, who leads the 2003 PGA Tour stroke averages on 68.13. "You've got to be creative and very patient and that's a lot of fun for me".

Woods was creative, patient and, ultimately, victorious last week. He may have been a little below par in this year's majors, but unquestionably he will be the player to beat in all four next season.

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