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Top names firing early in 2005

Be careful not to judge a PGA Tour season by the first few months.

It was only three years ago that Tiger Woods went 10 weeks without winning and endured endless questions about a slump. By summer, he had become the first player in 30 years to capture the first two legs of the Grand Slam.

Or look at Vijay Singh last year.

He won just one Tournament ( AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am) through the Masters, and had only three trophies heading into August. By the end of the year, Singh became only the sixth man in PGA Tour history with at least nine victories.

This promised to be a grandiose year in golf with so many top players either hitting or regaining their stride.

So far, it has not disappointed.

The first six winners are all ranked in the top 20. All but one (Stuart Appleby) are major champions.

Singh got off to such a strong start that he should have won the Mercedes Championships and did win the Sony Open in Hawaii. It looked as though he would be No. 1 for the rest of his life, or until retirement, whichever came first.

Then it was Woods' turn.

His victory the following week at the Buick Invitational was his first stroke-play title on the PGA Tour in about 16 months, and most people figured it was only a matter of time before Woods established himself anew as the player to beat.

But that was before Phil Mickelson won back-to-back at the FBR Open and AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, setting a slew of records along the way. He tied the course record on the Tournament Players Club at Scottsdale (60), broke the record at Spyglass Hill (62) and became the first wire-to-wire winner over 72 holes in the 68-year history of Pebble Beach.

"I don't know what specifically is driving everybody to play so well," Mickelson said. "But I think it's exciting for the game to see all the top players contending."

Next up is Riviera, which also has some intriguing possibilities.

The Nissan Open is the first PGA Tour event Woods played, as a 16-year-old, and it remains the only Tournament he has played at least four times without winning.

Mike Weir has a chance to become the first player to win three straight years at the Nissan Open. Canada's Lefty is coming off one of the best rounds of the year, hitting every fairway and missing only one green in the rain and wind at Pebble Beach.

With so many players doing so well, Mickelson has high hopes for the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, where two players from the top 10 have reached the finals only once since it began in 1999.

"I think there is a good chance this year a lot of the top guys will win the first few matches and square off later in the final rounds," Mickelson said.

"Many of the big names on Tour ... are off to great starts in 2005," Woods said in his monthly newsletter. "That's good for golf and should make the Masters even more exciting."

Not until after the Masters, probably the U.S. Open or maybe as late as the British Open will anyone be able to get a firm grasp on how this season is shaping up.

The No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking could change every week from now through the end of March, with the two-year system favoring Singh during that stretch.

All that is certain is that golf is off to a great start.

But that's all it is -- a start.


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