World's best back in pursuit of World No.1
Don’t be fooled by the sparkling ocean, swaying palm trees and umbrella drinks. It’s back to work for the PGA Tour.
The 2005 season opens Thursday with the Mercedes Championships in Kapalua, Hawaii.
With Vijay Singh having dethroned Tiger Woods as golf’s Big Kahuna, Phil Mickelson winning his first major and Ernie Els and Retief Goosen looking capable of contending for No. 1, the tour finds itself in a unique spot.
For the first time since 1999, Woods enters a season without being favored to win the money title and player-of-the-year honors. Singh claimed both of those with his nine-victory, $10 million campaign in 2004.
Singh’s strong play, and the rise of other challengers, puts a dramatically different spin on things.
The increased competition at the top adds intrigue to a tour often criticized for being a one-man show during Woods’ most dominant period (1999-2002). Since Woods’ victory at the 2002 U.S. Open, a different player has won each of the last 10 major championships.
Coming off a sub-par, one-win season, Woods actually has something to prove.
His swing, reworked under Hank Haney’s guidance, has been dissected and scrutinized. Mostly, people wonder why Woods wanted to change a swing that guided him through the most dominant stretch in golf history.
But remember, Woods evoked similar skepticism the last time he remodeled his swing after winning the Masters by 12 strokes. Seeking to improve his control, particularly on short approach shots, Woods refined his swing with Butch Harmon. He struggled for about 18 months but then won seven of 11 majors, including four straight. He had no rivals.
Will a similar scenario play out this year?
Woods paid the price of his swing change by failing to win a stroke-play event for the first time in a season since he turned pro in 1996.
But he showed significant signs of improvement at the end of the year. He finished runner-up to Goosen at the Tour Championship, then won off-season events in Japan and his Target World Challenge.
Although unofficial, those victories generated a swell of momentum for Woods heading to Kapalua. At the very least, he trusts his swing, which wasn’t the case last year.
During the final round, Woods missed only two fairways and one green. His ball striking was even better in Japan.
"It’s just a matter of getting the reps in," he said. "I had to take baby steps all year. Sometimes, it might have been just three or four holes in one round that I played great, and then the rest of it wasn’t so good. Eventually it became nine holes, then 18, then 36 and 54.
"Now it’s a whole tournament. It’s exciting."
Singh took advantage of Woods’ lull by posting one of the best seasons in tour history. The Fijian notched six victories and one runner-up finish in his last eight starts.
At 41, Singh finally achieved the No. 1 ranking he worked so hard for. With Woods, Els, Mickelson and Goosen in pursuit, it might be more difficult for Singh to stay there.
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