Woods will focus on majors in 2004
World number one Tiger Woods will be bidding to end a six-major run without a victory at Augusta National in April, one of several mouth-watering story-lines set to dominate the game over the next 12 months.
The 28-year-old American has not clinched a major since he triumphed by three shots in the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, but it is difficult to imagine another year going by without Tiger adding to his haul of eight grand slam titles.
"I felt like I played pretty consistently all year," Woods said last month, after being named PGA Tour Player of the Year for the fifth consecutive season.
"It was disappointing in majors for me but, of the biggest tournaments in the world (the World Golf Championship events), I got a couple of them.
"I really didn't know how my knee would hold up. All things considered, though, I'm very pleased," he added, referring to his knee surgery 12 months earlier.
By his lofty standards, Woods experienced an unsatisfactory 2003 when it mattered most, failing to get into contention in the year's first two majors and struggling with his driver for most of the season.
However, he ended his PGA Tour campaign with five wins -- more than anyone else -- and clinched the Vardon Trophy for the fifth successive year with a stroke average of 68.41.
He launches his 2004 PGA Tour campaign at this week's season-opening Mercedes Championship in Hawaii, an event he was forced to miss last year.
"Last year at this time, I wasn't sure when I would be able to compete again," he said on his official website. "This year, my knee is sound and I'm ready to go."
But Woods, who is expected to marry his Swedish girlfriend Elin Nordegren later this year, is by no means the only likely major winner in 2004.
Fiji's Vijay Singh, who produced intoxicating golf over the tail-end of 2003, can be expected to challenge for top honours, along with twice U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, who claimed seven victories worldwide last year.
Singh, 40, and Els, 34, are accustomed to the last-day pressures in a major championship and both need to make the most of their recent renaissance of form over the coming months.
Another player almost certain to be in the mix is 23-year-old Sergio Garcia.
The talented but mercurial Spaniard struggled for much of last year as he patiently remodelled his swing but hinted he is close to his best by clinching his second Sun City Golf Challenge in November.
Others to look out for at the majors in this Ryder Cup year include Americans Davis Love III and Chad Campbell, Dane Thomas Bjorn, Sweden's Fredrik Jacobson, Irishman Padraig Harrington and Britain's Darren Clarke.
Love, despite being rocked by the suicide of his brother-in-law in May, produced red-hot golf for much of 2003.
He ended the U.S. season with four wins and tied for fourth at the British Open.
Campbell, impressive winner of the season-ending Tour Championship last November, is acknowledged by his peers as one of the game's brightest all-round talents.
The 29-year-old Texan, denied victory at last year's U.S. PGA Championship when compatriot Shaun Micheel struck a brilliant seven-iron approach to two inches at the final hole, has every shot in the book.
He finished seventh in the 2003 U.S. money list; expect him to better that this year -- and to shine in the majors.
Garcia apart, Bjorn, Jacobson, Harrington and Clarke represent Europe's likeliest challengers.
Bjorn, who threw away a three-shot lead with three holes remaining at last year'sOpen, has the game and determination to bounce back in 2004.
Jacobson, despite his unorthodox swing, won three times in Europe last season and signalled his intentions at the highest level with top-six finishes at the U.S. and British Opens.
World number eight Harrington, winner of last month's Hong Kong Open, the 2004 European Tour's opening event, has been a consistent factor at majors in recent years and is probably due a victory.
Much the same can be said of the fitness-focused Clarke, who swept to victory by four shots in last year's WGC-NEC Invitational at Firestone, joining Woods as the only players with multiple WGC titles.
These players, and others, will ensure that golf experiences an enthralling 2004, with the 35th Ryder Cup certain to be a special highlight when staged at Oakland Hills, Michigan in September.
Whatever pans out, though, Woods will be a key factor.
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