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2004 setting up to be a vintage season

The final three major championships of 2004 are poised for a battle royal following Phil Mickelson's dramatic victory at the U.S. Masters.

Left-hander Mickelson ended a 14-year wait for his major breakthrough when he edged out Ernie Els by a shot at Augusta National eight days ago, paving the way for a vintage season in the four grand slam events.

Not since the early 1990s have the game's four biggest tournaments regularly featured the biggest names going head-to-head on the final day.

A decade ago, golfing heavyweights like Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Nick Price vied for major honours down the stretch. This year promises something similar, but with a different cast of characters.

Mickelson now knows he can clinch the deal, triple major winner Els has targeted a career grand slam within the next 10 years and Vijay Singh and Davis Love III, among others, are itching to add a few more major trophies to their collections.

Then, of course, there is world number one Tiger Woods.

Although his game in recent months has not reached the lofty heights of 2000, when he romped to victory in the last three majors of the year, he is always a factor whenever he tees off at a major.

The big difference this year, though, is that the Woods era of dominance is over -- at least for the moment.

In the past, players like Els and Singh have folded in the heat of major battle when the Tiger has been on the prowl. That is no longer the case.

Woods is not quite the player he was and has struggled for accuracy off the tee and with the precision of his approach play.

Previously he overpowered golf courses and opponents with his prodigious length. Now he is simply one of several big hitters, his earlier advantage eroded by technological advances in equipment, particularly with the driver and the ball.

Perhaps the most significant factor in all this is that Tiger's rivals have worked harder on their mental and physical approach to close the gap.

Although Woods remains the game's leading player by a hefty margin, this year's three remaining majors are wide open for the taking, a fact acknowledged by 18-times major winner Jack Nicklaus.

"All of a sudden, you can probably name a half a dozen players that have come out here in the last couple of years that have given Tiger a pretty good run, and are going to continue to," Nicklaus told reporters at this month's U.S. Masters.

"Plus some of the older guys, who have finally learned how to win more. I think definitely the major tournaments are more open today."

Four years ago, Els became the first player to finish runner-up in three consecutive majors, placing second behind Singh at the U.S. Masters and to Woods at the U.S. and British Opens.

However, the smooth-swinging South African openly admitted the 'Tiger factor' was weighing heavily on his mind and began working hard to strengthen his mental armour with Belgian sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout.

In July 2002, the fruits of those labours were realised when Els won the 131st British Open at Muirfield in a four-way playoff.

Since then, he has enjoyed complete faith in his ability.

"I'm in better shape than I was 10 years ago," he said in the build-up to the Masters. "I'm hitting more greens and I'm a better putter. I'm a better player, period.

"For the last 10 years, I've been learning the game. I feel I could really just go boom."

Former world number two Mickelson has also battled to close the gap on Woods. A perennial contender at the majors since 1995, he acknowledged the 2000 dominance of Woods while emphasising it was up to the rest to catch him up.

"We should all applaud what Tiger is accomplishing, but those of us playing against him on tour can't get caught up in worrying about him," he said in July 2000.

"We all have to make ourselves better players and things will take care of themselves."

Mickelson, one of the most gifted players in the game, has followed -- and benefited from -- his own advice.

He worked hard on his short game and fitness at the start of this year and, boosted by a more positive approach, finally achieved his major breakthrough at Augusta National on April 11.

"I had a real belief I was going to come through," he said, after holing an 18-foot birdie putt at the last to clinch victory by a shot.

Els, Woods, Singh and others also have that belief -- the perfect recipe for a vintage 2004 season in the majors.

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