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Classic season ahead if big three all fire

Golf's glory years of the 1960's, when the sport's 'Big Three' -- Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer -- took the game to new heights is poised to return.

For Nicklaus, Player and Palmer read Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh.

The new 'Big Three' are in a class of their own compared to the rest and 2005 promises to see a battle royal as they go head to head in the majors -- the final decider as to who is great rather than simply good.

Woods' stunning dominance in 2000 and 2001 that threatened to reduce the professional golf world to a one-man show is over.

The 29-year-old is still the best in the world, despite Singh being ranked as the current world No. 1, but no longer is he head and shoulders above everyone else.

Woods had for him a poor 2004 season but much of it was down to a swing change.

He admits he was frustrated at his results.

"It is frustrating when you can do it at home with your buddies but it doesn't carry over to tournaments," explained Woods. "Obviously there's a lot more pressure, but you just have to keep working at it.

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

Woods closed the season with two wins in non-tour events, heralding that he was back.

"I closed 2004 with eight-consecutive rounds in the 60s, which gives me lots of confidence for next year. It's exciting. I also won more than seven million dollars worldwide for the sixth year in a row which is a pretty good streak -- especially for someone who was tweaking his golf swing," he said.

Singh is determined to prove 2004 was not a one-off.

The 41-year-old proved that with all the modern changes to golf equipment age is no barrier anymore.

Singh won a staggering $10 million in prize money, with nine tour wins including the PGA Championship.

"He believes that the world has not accepted the fact that this was not a fluke," strength coach Joey Diovisalvi told Golf Digest. "He wants to know 'Why people don't give me credit?"

But it is Els that threatens to find himself the leader of the 'Big Three' as the South African gears up to wipe out last years heartbreak when he was in with a chance to win all four majors and ended up short each time.

"I feel the next couple of years are going to be big for Ernie," says swing coach David Leadbetter.

"He's swinging well, he's confident and he realizes it is just a matter of being there and something good is going to happen. His belief system is such that he believes he will win."

Harmon has no doubts that Els is the man to beat. "I think he is the best player in the world right now. To me he is a more complete package than Vijay," said Harmon recently.

Proof that Els had come to terms with 'losing' four majors in a row came at the AmEx World Golf Championship in Ireland.

The 35-year-old had never won in Ireland and admitted that it was vital he won the WGC to lift himself after a serious bout of depression after failing at the PGA.

Despite heaping the pressure on himself Els delivered. Two weeks later he won the World Match Play championship for a record sixth time and suddenly a new, stronger Els, was back on the winning trail.

And he is in a hurry.

"I want to feel determined. I've gone to far to feel this is as far as I can go," explained Els, who has two U.S. Opens and one British Open to his name.

"I want to feel determined to get back to winning majors. I feel like I need to do it right now," he added.

Chasing the 'Big Three' are a host of talented players -- Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia and Mike Weir.

All are capable of winning on their day but Woods, Els and Singh have put themselves in a class above.

The 2005 season promises to be a vintage one that will match the showdowns between Nicklaus, Palmer and Player that set the golf world alight.

The Masters at Augusta in April promises to be a spring showdown that will set the tone for the rest of the majors.


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