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Woods seeking to return to dominant ways

What promises to be a wide-open season on the US PGA Tour kicks off here on Thursday with the US$5.3 million Mercedes Championships. Tiger Woods, seemingly poised to pounce afer a lackluster 2004, will get a chance to find out if his solid play at the end of last year has carried over.

Woods won only once on the US tour last season, ended the year on a positive note with consecutive victories in Japan and at his own 16-man post-season event in California.

He says the swing changes he has been working on with new coach Hank Haney are coming together, and predicted he could match or even surpass his spectacular 2000 campaign, when he won three majors in a row en route to completing a chronological Grand Slam at the 2001 Masters.

"Honestly, I think I can be better," he said. "I'm always hungry heading into every season. I worked my tail off this past year, and the results I had towards the end of the year just made it so exciting.

"This is my 10th season on tour and that blows my mind. It's scary how fast that went. All of my buddies are ribbing me that I've got one year left before I turn 30."

Vijay Singh, the man who displaced Woods atop the world rankings with a stunning nine tournament victories, says he's hoping not only to maintain his standard, but to improve.

"It's going to be hard to top," the 42-year-old from Fiji said. "I'm keen to see if I can beat last year's performance, and in my heart I think I can do that. I'm going to take it to the next level if I can."

Singh finished second at the Mercedes last season by one stroke to Australian Stuart Appleby. Down five shots through 14 holes, Singh carded three consecutive birdies but couldn't catch Appleby, who became the third consecutive international player to win the event.

South Afrian Ernie Els won in 2003 and Spain's Sergio Garcia was victorious in 2002.

Els is hoping this week's event marks the start of a season that will see him add to his collection of major titles, which currently includes two US Opens and a British Open.

Last year he finished second at the Masters by a stroke and lost the British Open in a playoff.

"I would love to at least win a major this year," Els said. "It sounds very cocky, but that's always my mindset. I'm still chasing the Grand Slam."

Other top players entered here this week include Retief Goosen of South Africa, Spain's Sergio Garcia and Canadian Mike Weir.

Masters champ Phil Mickelson, however, is foregoing the event limited to last year's winners and will launch his season when the tour hits the mainland in San Diego, California, later this month.


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