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Speculation if marriage will affect Tiger

Last week's news that Tiger Woods is to marry his Swedish girlfriend took the golfing world by surprise, sparking immediate speculation about the likely impact this will have on the world number one's career.

Long before he turned professional in late 1996, Woods held a burning desire to become the best player in history and this unquestionably remains his single-minded focus.

The 27-year-old American has already won eight major championships and, although winless in majors this year for the first time since 1998, is determined to overhaul the record 18 won by his childhood idol Jack Nicklaus.

Apart from his raw talent for the game and a work ethic matched by very few of his rivals, Woods has always set the standard with his detailed preparation for tournaments. Whenever possible, nothing is ever left to chance.

Which brings us back to the potential distraction of Elin Nordegren, the 23-year-old former model whom Woods has dated for the last two years.

The pair met when Nordegren was working as nanny to the children of Swedish professional golfer Jesper Parnevik, and Woods finally proposed to her last week at South Africa's luxury Shamwari game reserve near the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.

No date has been set for the wedding, which will take place in Sweden, but golf fans across the globe are certain to monitor Woods's on-course performances next year even more closely than usual to assess the impact of the fiancee factor.

Genuine though his feelings undoubtedly are for the attractive Swede, Woods will, no doubt, ensure his golfing focus remains unaffected.

The world number one, by his own lofty standards, experienced an unsatisfactory 2003 and failed to contend in the first two majors of the year following knee surgery last December.

He also had problems throughout the season finding the best driver but ended his PGA Tour campaign with five wins -- more than anyone else -- and clinched the Vardon Trophy for the fifth consecutive year with a stroke average of 68.41.

He may have been a little below par in the four majors, despite tying for fourth in theOpen at Royal St George's, but unquestionably he will be the player to beat in all four during 2004.

"What I've always liked about Tiger is his work ethic," golfing great Nicklaus said at this year's U.S. Masters. "I like his focus, and he wants to be the best.

"But he really has pushed everything else aside to do that, and more power to him.

"But I don't think it (golf) will be the only thing in Tiger's life either. I got married when I was 20 years old and, by his age, I had three kids.

"He has the ability to see what his position could be in the game of golf and he is focusing on that. He's focusing on how he wants to be the best that there ever was.

"He set a goal -- to break my records -- and that's going to stay his goal until he does it. I would be very surprised if he doesn't break my records. Very surprised."

Earlier this year, Woods spoke about the effects of marriage on other players. Perhaps more significantly, though, he stressed his own dedication to the game, and the importance of staying mentally tough.

"Some guys get married, they start families, and that becomes the most important thing in their life for a little bit," he said. "Then they get back to golf and re-focus again.

"For those guys, it sort of ebbs and flows. But I've stayed dedicated to the game. I know things change in everyone's life, and I'm sure there'll be changes in mine too.

"Injuries, other things come along. You're not always going to be feeling well and you're not always going to be playing well. That's part of sports.

"But that's also where the mental toughness really comes in, if you're going to keep it."

That pretty much says it all. Expect Woods to stay mentally tough, and expect him to remain dedicated to the game -- as well as to Elin Nordegren.

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