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Vintage season in store as big players all fire

Golf fans should start preparing now for a roller-coaster ride of magical shot-making, ice-cool nerve under pressure and epic duels down the stretch at this year's majors.

In short, they should be ready for a vintage season at the highest level of the game.

Sunday's dramatic wins by Ernie Els in Dubai and Tiger Woods in Florida underlined the so-called 'Big Four' are in the pink as next month's U.S. Masters at Augusta National fast approaches.

Golf has desperately needed a rivalry to rank with Ben Hogan's tussles with Sam Snead in the 1950s or the major manoeuvring of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus -- dubbed the 'Big Three' -- in the 1960s.

The quartet of Els, Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh is now ready to deliver.

Each of them has won at least once this season and all four will be hungrier than ever to add at least one more major trophy to the family silverware by the year-end.

South African Els, who captured a record third Dubai Desert Classic at the weekend by holing an 18-foot eagle putt at the last, has not won a major since the 2002 British Open at Muirfield.

Woods, who reclaimed his place from Singh as the game's leading player after out-duelling Mickelson by a shot at the Doral Open on Sunday, won his last major at the 2002 U.S. Open.

It would take a brave man to bet against either player not winning a grand slam title this season.

Masters champion Mickelson and dethroned world number one Fijian Singh, winner of last year's U.S. PGA Championship, will also be champing at the bit for major glory over the next five months.

Left-hander Mickelson, a back-to-back winner on the 2005 PGA Tour, is capable of the most brilliant shot-making in the game.

More importantly, though, he has worked hard on his distance control and the shape of his drives over the last 15 months, the prime reason for his major breakthrough at Augusta last April when he narrowly held off a last-day charge by Els.

The 42-year-old Singh, renowned for his unparalleled work ethic, seems to get better with age.

Last year, he became the first PGA Tour player to earn more than $10 million in a season and also won nine titles -- the best since Woods in 2000 and a tally previously beaten only by Byron Nelson, Hogan and Snead.

Although his 26-week reign as number one was ended by Woods on Sunday, he did not go meekly. Winner of the Sony Open in Hawaii in January, Singh fired a superb 66 to tie for third at the Doral, thereby forcing Woods to win to take over top spot.

Mickelson and Singh, unquestionably, will be factors at all four majors this season.

Not to be forgotten are players like U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen of South Africa, WGC-Accenture Match Play winner David Toms of the U.S. and Spaniard Sergio Garcia.

The trio are highly rated by their peers and usually rise to the occasion at the majors.

A potential spanner in the works that could undermine a vintage major season in 2005 is the possible return of Woods to his dominance of 2000.

The 29-year-old American was virtually untouchable in June, July and August of that year, wining all three majors in record-breaking style.

He romped to a staggering 15-stroke win in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, evaded all the bunkers at St Andrews on his way to an eight-shot British Open triumph and produced sublime golf before beating compatriot Bob May in a playoff for the U.S. PGA Championship.

Between late 1999 and mid-2002, he won seven majors in 11 starts before parting company with his swing coach Butch Harmon and having knee surgery in December 2002.

Over the following two years, however, Woods lost the aura of dominance he once enjoyed at the majors and struggled for accuracy off the tee and with his approach play while undergoing the second revamp of his swing as a professional.

Now, though, the fruits of his endeavours appear to be ripe for the plucking.

He has already won twice on the U.S. Tour and, ominously for his rivals, appears to have regained complete control of his swing as well as the ability to produce the magical shot as if on demand.

"I feel very happy with it, there's no doubt about it," Woods told reporters at Doral when asked to describe his trust in the remodelled swing. "I was able to fly the ball, to hit the shots at the trajectory I wanted each and every time."


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