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As last week's Mercedes Championships was nearing its frantic finish, tournament director Gary Planos stood behind the 18th green with a half-dozen names printed on those oversized checks given to the winners. Planos was taking a prudent approach because he didn't know who was going to win until Jonathan Kaye's birdie putt on the final hole came up short, allowing Stuart Appleby to pick up the big check.

It may be that kind of a year on the PGA Tour.

Not just being unsure who's the top golfer in that tournament every week, but figuring out who's the best player in the world.

For the first time since Tiger Woods assumed the No. 1 ranking in 1997, it's not a given that Woods is going to continue to dominate the sport. Not after he won just one PGA Tour event in 2004 after averaging 6.4 victories the previous five years.

It's not even a certainty that Vijay Singh, who at 41 ruled golf last year with nine titles - the fourth-most in Tour history - will continue to hold on to the top spot at his age. Singh showed a small crack at the Mercedes when he blew a final-round lead for the first time in his past 11 opportunities.

While Singh leads Woods by about 1 1/2 points in the latest World Ranking (12.69-11.21), this isn't a two-man race. Ernie Els is third at 10.65, followed by U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (7.26) and Masters champion Phil Mickelson (6.58).

"Yeah, I did come back a little bit, but the guys also stepped it up, too," Woods said at the Mercedes. "You know, Phil had a wonderful year, Vijay had a great year and Ernie came as close as close gets to winning three majors in one year. Just one of those things where I think Goose was up there, as well. There's, like, five guys who can get there (No. 1 ranking)."

Just a year ago, Woods' ranking seemed safe. He entered the 2004 season with a 4 1/2-point lead over Singh. But that was gone by September after Woods won only the World Match Play Championship. He started the 2003 season with almost an eight-point lead over Mickelson, and his lead was almost double that over Els entering 2001 (28.80-11.45).

Conversely, Mickelson fell all the way to No. 14 entering last season but climbed back into the top five with victories at Augusta National and the Bob Hope Classic.

Between the rankings being tweaked to be more responsive to what's happened on the course and the elevated play of those chasing Woods the past few years, the No. 1 ranking could be like a revolving door this season. Last week Singh compared the current power structure to the 1960s era of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

Only instead of the Big Three, we seem to be looking at the Big Five.

"Those guys were at their best," Singh said of Nicklaus, Palmer and Player. "You're seeing the same thing right now. There's not just one guy dominating. There are three, four, five guys who can win Player of the Year."

Perhaps even more, Els believes.

"You've also got to look at Mike Weir and Davis Love, who had a quiet year for him last year, but he can really play well," Els said. "There's a whole bunch of players. These guys have been around a long time and I can definitely see those guys all playing throughout the season. They stay in good shape. They know how to prepare themselves week-in and week-out."

So while it may be better for the PGA Tour to have Woods return to his dominant role as Commissioner Tim Finchem negotiates another five-year TV deal, that doesn't seem likely considering the current climate. Goosen, who also won last year's Tour Championship, just hopes to be among those in the mix.

"There's a bunch of players feeling that they have a bit of a chance now to get up there," Goosen said. "It's tough to predict who is going to play well this year. It might be somebody that we are not even thinking about."

A new star could be among the latest wave of foreigners to join the PGA Tour. In 1996, there were just 27 foreign players who were PGA Tour members. This year, that number has almost tripled to 78.

The influx of world-class players explains why the PGA Tour, for the first time last year, had more foreign players win events (26) than Americans (22). While the nine victories by Fiji's Singh helped make that happen, the increase in top European players joining the PGA Tour, such as Lee Westwood, Thomas Levet, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Darren Clarke, will make it even more crowded at the top.

 

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