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Top players closing in on Woods No.1 spot

Once upon a time, a Tiger ruled the golfing kingdom, lending instant credibility to every tournament he entered.

If Tiger chose to roar on your local fairways, the roars from the starstruck gallery were guaranteed to be that much louder and television ratings that much higher.

Tiger Woods was far and away the world's No. 1 player, and the gap between him and his nearest threats seemed to grow swing by swing, birdie by birdie, major championship by major championship.

Lately, though, the gap has closed with the efficiency of an elevator door, leaving only a modest separation between Woods and players such as Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson.

Like college football's Bowl Championship Series, No. 1 has become a subjective topic in golf, meaning tournaments such as the International at Castle Pines need not suffer an inferiority complex when Woods does not complete their field of dreams.

Granted, Woods still possesses unparalleled drawing power, but his closest pursuers are themselves gallery magnets whose power of attraction has increased now that No. 1 is up for grabs.

"I think we're more on a level playing field now, and maybe because Tiger has come back to the field a little bit," Els said. "A lot of the players feel that we can compete with him now at the highest level."

Though Mickelson rivals Woods in popularity, no one is closer to grabbing Tiger by the tail than Els, who this week will make his 14th consecutive appearance at the International.

Second to Mickelson at the Masters, ninth at the U.S. Open and runner-up again at the British Open, Els has used his Big Easy swing to gradually close in on Woods.

With another strong performance at Castle Pines -- he never has missed the second-round cut -- and a victory at the PGA Championship next week, Els conceivably could end Woods' five-year monopoly of golf's top ranking.

"This question has been coming my way a couple of times this year, and it's nice when that question comes around because you're doing something good," Els said. "But I guess four or five years ago that question wasn't around. We were kind of in another league trying to compete with Tiger.

"If the No. 1 (ranking) comes around, obviously, it will be great. To be No. 1 in this day and age with this many great players would be quite something."

Els, whose professional journey toward the top began at the International in 1991, is followed in the world rankings by Singh, Mickelson, Davis Love III and Retief Goosen.

Of that group, Mickelson and Singh, normally Castle Pines fixtures, are not in the International field this week because they wanted to prepare for the PGA next week at Whistling Straits.

The International's place in the schedule also is a primary reason Woods has not played at Castle Pines since 1999.

Five years ago, the triple-whammy absence of Woods, Mickelson and Singh would have caused some serious hand-wringing among International officials.

Now, though, the tournament simply becomes more of a showcase fors Els, Love and Goosen -- three of the world's top six players.

"I miss Phil and I miss Tiger. I'd be a fool and a pathological liar if I said otherwise," International executive director Larry Thiel said, "but we're going to stand on our merits and be one (great) golf tournament.

"Tiger's still the greatest player in the world, make no mistake about that. But there are other players who have really gotten their act together to compete with Tiger."

A little more than two years ago, Woods was on a pace to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major victories well before his 40th birthday.

Woods' win at the 2002 U.S. Open marked his seventh major title in 11 starts, but he since has played in nine Grand Slam events without tasting victory.

Els and Mickelson have finished ahead of Woods in each of the past four majors, further prompting the question: Why has Woods lost his overlapping grip on dominance?

The answer involves a combination of factors ranging from the physical to the technological to the psychological.

"I have certainly not played up to the level that I know I can play at," Woods told reporters during a video conference last week. "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's just a matter of time before those guys were going to take it up another notch, and they have."

It wasn't long ago that Woods overpowered the golf ball unlike any player aside from John Daly, giving him a tremendous advantage against the competition.

The recent technology boom in golf has proved to be a great equalizer, allowing players such as 50-year-old Jay Haas to bomb his custom-fit, oversized driver while keeping his carefully selected four-piece ball within range of Woods.

No longer remarkably longer than the average Bernhard Langer, Woods saw his physical advantage shrink from the size of a greenside bunker to that of a ball marker.

That, in turn, has dissolved Woods' image as unbeatable, a mind trap that snared even the world's elite players.

"Right in the middle of the Tiger storm, whenever he teed it up, I felt that he was going to shoot a 67 or something better," Els said. "In majors, normal Tour events, any event, that's the way I felt. That's how good he was playing.

"It was difficult for not only myself but for other players to really believe that you can go out there and play your game and think it's going to be good enough. I felt that way, and it happened that way."

Els began hammering away at that mental barrier when he won the 2002 British Open, and Rich Beem inspired golf's middle class when he held off Woods to capture the PGA Championship a few weeks later.

Beem's surprising win came two weeks after he triumphed at Castle Pines, and it ultimately proved to be the first of six consecutive victories by first-time major winners.

Gone was Woods' cloak of invincibility. Guys such as Beem, Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel, and most recently,Open champ Todd Hamilton, proved that the underdog could topple the top dog.

"There's more and more good players. You can't just go in and say, 'One of these 10 guys will win,' " Love said. "Nobody would have picked Todd Hamiliton (to win the British), but when he wins, you start explaining how good he is."

In addition to Hamilton and other breakthrough performers, top 10 mainstays such as Mickelson, Mike Weir and Jim Furyk also took their first sip from the major chalice in the past two years, validating their already impressive resumes.

"I think everybody else has raised their game," said Thomas Bjorn, runner-up at the 2003 British Open. "I think everybody else sees them playing better than they used to.

"There's a lot more players out there now that see themselves not shooting 10-under, they see themselves shooting 20-, 25-under on fairly difficult golf courses."

The collective surge in confidence has helped add suspense to the chase for No. 1. If Els stumbles, Singh is next in line.

Short of pitching a tent on the driving range, it would be impossible for Singh to spend more time in the practice area, and his tireless -- bordering on obsessive -- work ethic has him within range of the top spot.

Singh threatened to overtake Woods by winning three times in his first 12 starts this season. After treading water in the rankings for the past three months, jump-started his season by switching to a conventional putter from the belly model and won the Buick Open last week beating, among others, Tiger Woods.

"I had a great start to the season -- obviously the gap (with Woods) has closed -- but I need to start winning," he said.

"I just need some momentum to start turning my way. That's what I'm looking for. I think if I start scoring the way I'm capable of, who knows what's going to happen."

Mickelson and Love, who round out the top five, are capable of knocking Woods from his No. 1 perch, and Goosen lurks as another threat to Woods' stronghold.

Despite splitting his time between the United States and Europe, the subdued South African has won at least one PGA Tour event each of the past four seasons, and he won the U.S. Open in June for the second time in four years.

"He's quiet, but he's got a (great) game, and he's right there to challenge for the No. 1 spot, as well," Els said.

True to his modest, unassuming persona, Goosen shrugged off his status among the Tiger hunters.

"I think there are some guys here that respect the way I'm playing and so on, but I think I've got a little bit of catching up to do with guys like Ernie and Vijay with what they've done over the last 10 years," he said.

Also playing catch-up is Sergio Garcia, the 24-year-old Spaniard who was anointed perhaps prematurely as Woods' next great rival when he burst onto the scene in 1999.

After a slow start to 2004, Garcia won twice in a five-week span in May and June, but he has yet to take the next step to major stardom.

Garcia and Padraig Harrington are the only members of the top 10 who have not won a major.

With the recent parity in golf, that might change soon enough.

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