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Woods looking to claim Amex title again

Three-times winner Tiger Woods bids for a third successive title at this week's WGC-American Express Championship in Kilkenny, Ireland.

The American, still searching for the dominant form that allowed him to collect eight majors, has been aided in his quest by the late withdrawal of world number one Vijay Singh.

The Fijian, who would have started red-hot favourite after recently ending Woods's five-year reign as the game's leading player, pulled out after his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida was hit by Hurricane Jeanne.

Singh had won five of his last six tournaments, including the Pennsylvania Classic on Sunday where he took his 2004 tour earnings to a record $9,455,566, breaking the previous mark set by Woods in 2000.

His absence is a blow for tournament organisers, who had hoped for a showdown between the world's two top-ranked players, although Woods will have to raise his game if he is to repeat his two-shot victory at last year's American Express Championship at Woodstock, Georgia.

Woods has not won a strokeplay title since then and despite being the best player in the world since Jack Nicklaus his dominance has waned. The last of his eight majors came at the U.S. Open in mid-2002.

The 28-year-old American has had problems with his driving and the accuracy of his approach play over the last two years but relishes the prospect of being back at Mount Juliet, where he won the 2002 American Express Championship.

"The fans were ecstatic, they were happy," Woods recalled of his one-stroke victory there over South Africa's Retief Goosen.

"They were so enthusiastic about us being there and playing."

Woods, who won the inaugural American Express Championship at Valderrama in 1999, 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 have certainly not played up to the level that I know I can play at, but the things that I'm working on will hopefully kick in and will take me to another level.

"Overall, I'm very pleased with the way my game is progressing and coming together," added Woods, who has produced eight top-10 finishes in his last 10 PGA Tour starts.

Eight of the world's top 10 players will be teeing off in Thursday's opening round at Mount Juliet, with fourth-ranked Phil Mickelson, the U.S. Masters champion, the only absentee apart from the unfortunate Singh.

Mickelson, who has struggled for form in his last two PGA Tour events after producing excellent golf at this year's majors, cited personal reasons for his withdrawal.

Canada's Mike Weir, Americans John Daly and Kenny Perry and three-times major winner Nick Price of Zimbabwe are the only other players missing from the world's top 50.

Seventh-ranked Weir, the 2003 U.S. Masters champion, cited sickness and world number 37 Daly a foot injury for their withdrawals.

World number 17 Perry and 36th-ranked Price wanted to spend time with their families.

Ten members of Europe's victorious Ryder Cup team will also be playing at Mount Juliet -- Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley, Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia, David Howell, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Thomas Levet and Lee Westwood.

Nine members of the defeated U.S. side at Oakland Hills are also taking part -- Woods, Chad Campbell, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk, Jay Haas, Davis Love III, Chris DiMarco, Chris Riley and David Toms.

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