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Tiger Woods returns at strong Wachovia field

World number one Tiger Woods makes his first appearance since winning last month's U.S. Masters at this week's Wachovia Championship in what should be a feast of golf for fans at Charlotte, North Carolina.

Also back in action after a three-week break is 2004 Masters champion Phil Mickelson while the workaholic Vijay Singh, world-ranked two, is ready for his third tournament in a row.

Woods, who clinched his ninth major at Augusta National with a playoff victory over fellow American Chris DiMarco, is the headline act, though, at Quail Hollow Club where nine of the world's top 11 players will be competing this week.

The only absentees are South Africa's world number three Ernie Els and his compatriot Retief Goosen, U.S. Open champion and the world number five.

Els is enjoying a week with his family at his Wentworth, England home after romping to a 13-shot victory in the Asian Open in China on Monday.

If the pattern of the 2005 PGA Tour season continues this week, then a dramatic Wachovia finish is assured.

In the last 11 strokeplay events, the winner has not been determined before the 72nd hole while three of the last four have been decided in a playoff.

Woods, who tied for third at last year's Wachovia Championship, arrives in Charlotte in upbeat mood after claiming his fourth green jacket at Augusta National and, with it, the world number one ranking.

Some of his critics remain sceptical, however. They say he is yet to regain his very best form, offering as evidence his untidy finish over the final holes at the Masters.

Mickelson will also have questions to answer at Quail Hollow as he looks to replicate the blistering early season form that earned him three wins, including back-to-back titles in February at the Phoenix Open and the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Should the chance arise, he will also be determined to reverse the result of his thrilling duel with Woods down the stretch at the Doral Open in March.

It was the most exciting PGA Tour finish of the season with Woods, who closed with a six-under-par 66, prevailing by a shot.

While Woods and Mickelson have rested since the Masters, Singh has typically been hard at work, successfully defending his Houston Open crown two weeks ago and contending at last week's Zurich Classic of New Orleans until a final-day collapse.

The smooth-swinging Fijian will want to close the gap on Woods at the top of the rankings this week but needs a better performance from his putter, which has deserted him at crucial times this season.

Singh has won twice on the 2005 PGA Tour, at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January and last month in Houston, but on two other occasions has let titles slip through his fingers with uncharacteristic lapses.

He lost in a playoff to Irishman Padraig Harrington at the Honda Classic in March and found the water on the final hole at the Bay Hill Invitational the following week to hand victory to American Kenny Perry.

An erratic putter could prove disastrous on Quail Hollow's tricky greens but the latest addition to the World Golf Hall of Fame will be encouraged by his recent record there, finishing runner-up in 2003 and tied for 10th last year.

Perhaps no other golfer, though, will be under more scrutiny this week than DiMarco.

Leading by two strokes with nine holes to play at the Zurich Classic on Sunday, the American appeared to be on the brink of his first PGA Tour title since the 2002 Phoenix Open.

However, the Ryder Cup player produced a faltering finish and failed by a shot to join compatriots Tim Petrovic and James Driscoll in a playoff won by Petrovic at the first extra hole.

Also playing this week are Australia's world number six Adam Scott, seventh-ranked Harrington and world number 10 David Toms, all three having triumphed on the PGA Tour this season.


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