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Top spot may be hard for Woods to hold

Getting back to No. 1 in the world wasn't easy for Tiger Woods.

It took him eight tournaments over six months to nudge past Vijay Singh in the world ranking. And it required a Herculean effort against Phil Mickelson to win the Ford Championship at Doral, including some clutch shots that will be talked about the rest of the year.

Woods drove the 347-yard 16th green on Saturday. He twice reached the 603-yard 12th hole in two shots and made a 25-foot eagle putt in the final round to take the lead for the first time. He made a 30-foot putt on the 17th hole that turned out to be the difference. And his 63-66 was the lowest weekend by a winner in the 44-year history at Doral.

``That was special,'' Woods said of his duel with Mickelson.

The last time Woods took over No. 1 in the world ranking, he won a memorable duel by making a clutch putt on the 17th hole at Medinah to beat 19-year-old Sergio Garcia in the final major of the millennium.

Woods then stayed on top for the next 264 weeks.

This time, it might not be that easy.

His reign could be over at the end of this week, or perhaps the end of the month.

``He's certainly going to have increased competition that he hasn't had in past years,'' Jack Nicklaus said Monday. ``You heard me a couple of years ago. What will happen to Tiger? I said a lot of his competition had not shown up yet, or guys playing against him will raise the level of their golf game.''

Nicklaus quickly ticked off the names of Mickelson, Singh and Retief Goosen, all of whom won majors last year, and all of whom were in the top eight at Doral. Halfway around the world, Ernie Els produced a dramatic finish of his own by making an 18-foot eagle on the last hole to win the Dubai Desert Classic.

Call it golf's version of March Madness.

``It's a great week for golf,'' said Zach Johnson, who tied for third with Singh at Doral. ``This is what the spectators want. They want these kind of duels. They will have a lot more of them. Tiger raised the bar. And now everybody is starting to come toward him.''

After Woods won the '99 PGA Championship, he ended the season with four straight victories, then reeled off one of the greatest seasons in golf. Not only did he win nine times and three straight majors in 2000, he won by record margins and left everyone so far behind that it appeared he would be No. 1 until retirement.

Now the list of challengers is longer than ever.

Singh might be able to return to No. 1 this week if he wins the Honda Classic.

Els' victory in Dubai was his first of the year and puts him in a good frame of mind on the road to the Masters. The Big Easy is close enough that he could be No. 1 by the end of the month.

Mickelson lost another final-round showdown with Woods, although he still might be the hottest player in golf. Coming off a five-shot victory in Phoenix and a wire-to-wire win at Pebble Beach, Lefty spent 10 consecutive rounds atop the leaderboard in stroke play and was shocked the streak didn't stretch to 11.

His back-to-back birdies after Woods pulled ahead for the first time was evidence that Mickelson is not one to wilt. He had a 30-foot birdie chip on the final hole that lipped out of the cup.

``I felt like I was playing better than anybody,'' Mickelson said. ``I just knew I was going to win, and when I didn't, it was a great slap in the face. Because I'm going to work my tail off to salvage a couple more shots. When I come back to The Players Championship and the Masters, I'm going to be ready.''

On the surface, Woods looks as dynamic as ever.

After going four years without a comeback victory, Woods now has two in a row. He came from two shots down at Torrey Pines against Tom Lehman, then made up a two-shot deficit against Mickelson in the final round at Doral.

Woods beat Mickelson, but not without a tremendous effort.

``That shows you what kind of competitor Phil is,'' Woods said. ``Don't forget what he did on that back nine. That was impressive to watch.''

Equally impressive are the first two months of the PGA Tour season.

Singh won the Sony Open with a birdie on the final hole, after Els had closed with a 62. Woods and Mickelson each have won twice. And while Els squandered two chances in Hawaii, the victory in Dubai was important.

The only question mark right now is Singh.

He missed the cut at Pebble Beach and was eliminated in the second round of the Match Play Championship. Singh hit the ball beautifully at Doral, but simply couldn't make enough putts. Still, it was his first top 10 finish since Hawaii.

Singh slipped out a side door without talking about his final round Sunday. He is the only player among the top five who is playing this week at the Honda Classic.

Mickelson is taking two weeks off, one of those a skiing trip with his family in Colorado.

Woods will take off next week before resuming his road to the Masters -- Bay Hill, The Players Championship, a week to practice and then on to Augusta, where he could find a large crowd of players capable of stopping him.


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