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Much anticipation for 2005's majors

With Tiger Woods having lost the aura of dominance he enjoyed three years ago, golf fans are preparing for a second consecutive season of intoxicating play and last-day drama at the four majors in 2005.

The likes of Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh shone at the highest level in 2004 and any of those four is capable of ruling the roost over the coming months.

No longer do they fear the 'Tiger factor' as a possible psychological weakness and all four would dearly love to boost their career hauls of major titles this season.

Not to be forgotten are players like Spaniard Sergio Garcia, Irishman Padraig Harrington and Canadian left-hander Mike Weir, who have the talent and the nerve to mix it with the very best coming down the stretch on the last day of a grand slam event.

Possibly the hungriest of the lot, though, will be eight-times major winner Woods, a married man now who ended a frustrating 2004 of swing changes with wins in his last two strokeplay events.

"It was nice to finish off the year with back-to-back victories in Japan and the Target World Challenge," he said in his final newsletter of last year.

"I've been down this road before with swing changes. I did it with Butch Harmon and now I'm doing it with Hank Haney. The last time, it took me two years to get it right, but that's just part of the process.

"I closed 2004 with eight-consecutive rounds in the 60s, which gives me lots of confidence for 2005," added Woods, who failed to clinch a strokeplay title on last year's PGA Tour for the first time since turning professional in 1996.

"I also won more than $7 million worldwide for the sixth year in a row, which is a pretty good streak. Especially for someone who was tweaking his golf swing.

"This is an exciting time for me and I can't wait for the PGA Tour season to start in Hawaii (at this week's Mercedes Championship)."

Woods, 29, has not won a major since the 2002 U.S. Open, the same year he parted with his former swing coach Harmon. Last September, his five-year reign as world number one was ended by Fiji's Singh.

Hungry though Woods will be as he bids to close the gap on the career tally of 18 majors achieved by Jack Nicklaus, Mickelson, Els, Goosen and Singh are almost certain to peak for this season's big events.

After all, the quartet combined to make last year's majors the most keenly contested by the game's leading players for more than a decade.

Mickelson and South African Els produced an epic battle of shot-making in the final round of the U.S. Masters before the American left-hander ended a 14-year wait for a major breakthrough.

Two months later, it was Goosen's turn at the U.S. Open. In brutal last-day conditions at sun-baked Shinnecock Hills, the South African single-putted 11 of the first 17 greens to hold off Mickelson and win by two strokes.

In July, Els came agonisingly close to clinching his second British Open title before losing out to American outsider Todd Hamilton in a four-hole playoff at Royal Troon.

The following month, Singh claimed his third career major in the U.S. PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, holing a 10-foot birdie putt at the first of three extra holes before edging out Americans Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco.

The smooth-swinging Fijian, whose work ethic is unparalleled, ended the year with nine victories on the PGA Tour, becoming the first player to earn more than $10 million in a single campaign.

Singh is determined to maintain his golden run of form in 2005. With his 42nd birthday just over a month away, he concedes he has limited time left at the pinnacle of the game.

"I don't have that many years to contend -- probably another five or six -- and I'd like to win a few more before I finish," he said.


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