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Top players closing in on Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods hears the footsteps in the distance, but he doesn't dwell on them.

In Woods' estimation, the top spot in the world golf rankings -- a position that has belonged to him for the past 247 weeks -- is merely a byproduct of solid play on the PGA Tour, not a goal to be nurtured and pursued. It lacks the lasting value of more tangible objectives, such as winning 19 major championships. Or marrying a Swedish swimsuit model.

But it is not a station in life that Woods plans to vacate easily, despite the rapidly shrinking gap between himself and the No. 2 player, Vijay Singh. As both prepare for this week's EDS Byron Nelson Championships at the Four Seasons Resort in Irving, Texas, Woods is clinging to the smallest margin of separation between himself and his closest peer in the world rankings since 1999.

In the complicated ranking system that factors in players' performances over a two-year time frame, Woods has averaged 13.27 points per event. Singh's average is 10.69. The 2.58-point differential is minuscule compared to the 19.4-point gap that Woods held over then-No. 2 Phil Mickelson on May 20, 2001 -- the largest margin Woods built during a stretch when he won seven majors in 11 attempts while dominating the PGA Tour.

These days, the dominant player is Singh, the defending Nelson champion whose past 20 starts at Tour events have resulted in five victories and 15 top-10 finishes. Included are two victories in the past month, the Shell Houston Open and the HP Classic of New Orleans. That surge has placed him on pace to overtake Woods as No. 1 in the world rankings by the middle of June, if Singh's hot streak continues and Woods does not claim a victory in that stretch.

If Singh cools off, other notables in the rankings -- Ernie Els (9.56), Mickelson (7.63) and Mike Weir (7.00) -- are just a major championship away from collecting enough points to begin seriously nipping at Woods' heels. Five of the world's six top-ranked golfers are scheduled to compete in the Nelson, which begins Thursday at the TPC Las Colinas and Cottonwood Valley courses. At the very least, Woods considers it an opportunity to see if objects in his rearview mirror truly are closer than they may appear.

``It's a fact that I won't be No. 1 in the world forever,'' Woods said. ``Either someone flat-out outplays me, or I might not play at the same level, or old age takes over. Every street comes to an end . . . and I haven't won the biggest events like I did for a while.''

To be specific, Woods hasn't won a major championship -- the events that have the greatest impact on the rankings -- in his past seven attempts, dating to the 2002 U.S. Open. He has only one victory this season, and ranks behind Singh, Mickelson and Els on the 2004 money list. Asked if he would be bothered to surrender the top spot he has held since passing David Duval on Aug. 15, 1999, Woods indicated he would be more disappointed by what such a shift of position represents.

``It would bother me because it means I wouldn't have won ... as many times as I normally have and the tournaments I want to win,'' said Woods, who has averaged 6.4 victories per season over the past five years (1999-2003). ``It's just quality of play. If you play solidly every time you tee it up, the rankings should take care of themselves. If you win, that's the ultimate goal.''

For Singh, the goal is winning -- and climbing. In 2003, he broke Woods' four-year reign as the Tour's top money winner. Singh set the pace, with $7,573,907 -- almost $1 million more than Woods, the runner-up. Supplanting Woods as the top money winner, said Singh, marked ``the biggest accomplishment that I've had in my career.''

But he has his eyes on a bigger prize. Taking over the No. 1 spot in the world rankings, said Singh, is ``very much'' on his to-do list.

``I want to be No. 1 before I finish,'' said Singh, 41, who downplayed the possibility of reaching that goal in January, when he began the season trailing Woods by 5.11 points. Now that he's shaved that margin to 2.58 points in a little more than four months, Singh considers it possible to reach his dream in 2004.

``If I keep playing like I'm playing now, I have a shot,'' said Singh, who tops the season money list with $4,396,666. ``The way I played (in Houston and New Orleans) was the best I've played for a long, long time. I hit a lot of fairways and a lot of good shots. I struck the ball really solid.''

The secret, Singh said, is to keep doing what he's doing. In Houston, that meant winning on Monday after a rain delay. In New Orleans, where rain dictated another Monday finish, that meant a closing 63 in which he erased a six-stroke deficit over his final eight holes.

``You are not going to lose any spots (in the rankings) by winning golf tournaments,'' Singh said. ``But it's very hard to catch Tiger. His points are so high up there. And when he comes out, he always performs well. So, I've got to keep winning five or six events a year just to get close to him.''

Maybe not, suggested Els, who finished as the runner-up to Mickelson in last month's Masters Tournament. With Woods working his way through a minor swing change, his ball-striking statistics are down this season. In Els' estimation, that means it's time to strike from back in the pack.

``He's cooled down a little bit,'' Els said. ``He's still playing at a very high level, but nothing like in that four-year stretch (1999-2002) when he ... played on such a level that I think Jack Nicklaus, in his prime, would have had a very tough time handling him. There's no question the gap between Tiger and the rest of us has gotten smaller. That had to happen. As good as Tiger Woods is, he's never going to master this game.''

Neither is Mickelson, but he's clearly the most improved player on the 2004 PGA Tour. Mickelson, who went winless in 2003, has two victories this season, including his first major, and has climbed from 13th to fifth in the world rankings since January. He is the only Tour player who has averaged more money per start ($375,827) than Singh ($338,205) in 2004.

Although Mickelson has credited much of his success to off-season work rebuilding his swing and his short game with instructors Rick Smith and Dave Pelz, another element has emerged. In past seasons, Mickelson found himself tightening up in Sunday rounds to the point he was ``not real talkative. ... I wanted people to stay away and leave me alone.''

He made a decision to change that approach in 2004, which has paid off.

``I've tried to not let myself drift into that mode,'' Mickelson said. ``I want to let my personality on Sunday be what it is on the first three days, which is having fun. I just want to enjoy the round, enjoy the day, and I feel that has allowed me to play my best golf.''

Good enough, for four months, to close some of the gap on Woods. But can anyone, Singh included, actually overtake the golfer who has held the top spot for the longest continuous stretch since the rankings were introduced in 1986?

Even Woods wonders.

``Vijay has been playing great since the middle of last year. Nothing has really changed,'' Woods said. ``If you win, you move up a lot. And he's been winning. The more times you can win, like I did the past four or five years . . . that's what's been able to sustain me at that level. It's all about winning.''

And lately, no one on the PGA Tour has been winning more than Vijay Singh.

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