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Rankings reflect new order in golf in 2004

Tiger Woods's slide down the world rankings over the last month underlines the changing face of golf in 2004.

For five years, Woods retained a stranglehold as the game's leading player. The likes of Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson, more often than not, had to settle for second best behind the talented American.

No longer, though.

While Woods has dropped to three in the official rankings and failed to contend for any of this season's majors, Els, Singh and Mickelson have notably made a consistent impact.

South African Els and Mickelson thrilled the galleries at the U.S. Masters in April, producing a scintillating display of shot-making before the American left-hander beat his rival by a stroke with a birdie at the last.

Els played in the final group of the U.S. Open but slipped back with an 80 in brutal conditions at Shinnecock Hills as his compatriot Retief Goosen edged out Mickelson for the title by two shots.

Mickelson clinched his third runner-up spot in the last six U.S. Opens while Els tied for ninth.

At the British Open in July, Els was poised for a fourth career major victory but lost out to American Todd Hamilton in a four-hole playoff at Royal Troon.

Four weeks later in the U.S. PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, it was Singh's turn.

The workaholic Fijian held his nerve to win a third major crown in a three-way playoff.

Singh, who in 2003 ended Woods's four-year reign as the PGA Tour's leading money winner, made a further dent in the American's record four weeks ago by taking over as world number one.

Many felt this was long overdue, given how well Singh had played over a sustained period. The Fijian has won eight times on the 2004 PGA Tour, including five in his last six starts.

Woods could hardly complain as his record run of 264 weeks at the top finally ended.

Although Woods claims he is close to his best after revamping his swing for much of this year, he accepts it was simply a matter of time before his rivals challenged his supremacy.

"The guys are working harder and are in better shape," said the eight-times major winner. "Their techniques are better. They're working more hours on the range, as well as in the gym.

"It was just a matter of time before those guys were going to take it up another notch, and they have."

The last few weeks have been particularly difficult for Woods.

He was part of the U.S. Ryder Cup team that slumped to a record 18-1/2 points to 9-1/2 defeat to Europe at Oakland Hills, and has been distracted with the news that his father, Earl Woods, has had a relapse of prostate cancer.

He then came close to pulling out of last week's WGC-American Express Championship at Mount Juliet in Ireland, after straining his shoulder the previous week sleeping awkwardly on a flight to Orlando.

He battled on, though, and ended up a creditable ninth. However, the former world number one is now without a stroke-play title for the first time since he won the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, the fifth tournament of his career.

"I've been close this year and I've come within a shot of making a playoff two straight weeks," said Woods after being replaced as world number two by Els, the tournament winner.

"It's just a matter of eliminating the little mistakes which will allow me to win tournaments."

Woods has chances to end his title drought at the season-ending Tour Championship in Atlanta and the Dunlop Phoenix tournament in Japan before the end of the year.

However, he is likely to achieve that next victory as a married man.

Media reports suggest he will tie the knot with his Swedish fiancee Elin Nordegren at the Sandy Lane luxury resort in Barbados on Tuesday.

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