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Woods admits that rivals have caught up

World number one Tiger Woods believes it was simply a matter of time before his rivals challenged the supremacy he once enjoyed in the game.

While Woods has lost his aura of dominance and has not won a major since the 2002 U.S. Open, the likes of Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen have closed the gap in the global pecking order.

"I have certainly not played up to the level that I know I can play at," American Woods told a teleconference on Monday before his title defence at the WGC-American Express Championship in Kilkenny, Ireland in September.

"But the things that I'm working on will hopefully kick in and will take me to another level.

"But also the guys are working harder. The equipment has gotten better. The guys are in better shape now. 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."

Woods conceded it was not just the leading players who were now capable of winning majors.

Following the surprise victory by American outsider Todd Hamilton in the British Open at Royal Troon this month, seven of the last eight majors have been clinched by first-time winners.

"Golf is becoming so much deeper than it ever used to be," Woods said. "It's not just about 10 or 15 guys that have a chance to win a major championship anymore.

"It's anyone who enters the field has an opportunity because these guys are so much better.

"If you go from number one to 156 in any given field, you're going to see there isn't too much disparity between one and 156.

"I think that's just reflective of how the game has changed, become deeper. And I think it's become more competitive because of that."

Woods, who won the 2002 WGC-American Express Championship by a shot from South African Goosen when the tournament was last staged at Mount Juliet in Ireland, is upbeat about his title defence.

"The things I'm working on are starting to come together and I'm very excited about it," he said.

"I really played well at the (British) Open Championship, I just made no birdies on the back nine. That's not how you win a championship," he added, referring to his tie for ninth at Troon.

"But overall, I'm very pleased with the way my game is progressing and coming together."

Woods, who has struggled with his driving and the precision of his approach play over the last two years, said he had been working with Hank Haney, who coaches his good friend Mark O'Meara.

"I have worked with Hank a little bit," he said. "I've asked him a few questions here and there. Mainly I'm just trying to get my game more consistent."

Many of Woods's peers believe the world number one should reunite with his former swing coach Butch Harmon, the pair having parted company after the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.

Woods, however, discounted such a move.

"No. Butch and I are not working together, and that's it," he said.

The 2004 WGC-American Express Championship will be played at Mount Juliet from September 30 to October 3.

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