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Tiger Woods back in dominant position

Twelve months ago, the build-up to the U.S. Masters was dominated by animated talk of the Big Four.

Tiger Woods had triumphed twice on the PGA Tour but so, too, had fellow American Phil Mickelson.

Fijian Vijay Singh, recently deposed as world number one, had clinched the Sony Open in Hawaii while South Africa's Ernie Els had claimed back-to-back European Tour titles in the Middle East.

At last, top-ranked Woods would have to contend with a genuine rivalry for golfing supremacy. The watching world waited with bated breath.

By the end of the year, though, Woods was firmly installed as the game's leading player. Victories at the Masters and British Open lifted his major tally to 10 and six titles overall on the PGA Tour pushed his earnings for the season above $10 million.

His aura of dominance did not quite match the extraordinary level achieved during his astonishing run of form in 1999 and 2000, but it was not far off.

With this year's Masters just over four weeks away, there is no talk of the Big Four, the Big Three or even the Big Two.

Woods, well out on his own now as the Big One, will journey to Augusta National early next month as the defending champion and overwhelming favourite to clinch the fifth Green Jacket of his career.

The 30-year-old American extended his lead over Singh to 9.15 points at the top of the world rankings following his one-stroke victory at the Doral Championship in Miami on Sunday.

Although he stumbled at the finish with bogeys at the last two holes, Woods played well enough over the week to secure the 48th PGA Tour title of his career and his third win of the year in just five starts.

Neither Mickelson nor Singh has triumphed this year while Els's only victory came in a mediocre field at the European Tour's Dunhill Championship in South Africa.

Worryingly for Woods's rivals, all three of his victories have come with him not quite producing his 'A' game, and despite a little bit of help from others along the way.

David Toms would have forced a playoff at Doral's Blue Monster course on Sunday had he not three-putted the final green for a bogey-five.

Jose Maria Olazabal missed a four-foot par putt to lose out to Woods in a playoff for the Buick Invitational in San Diego in January and Els bogeyed the first extra hole, after finding water with his second shot, to gift him the European Tour's Dubai Desert Classic the following week.

The bottom line is that Woods is capable of playing his way into contention week-in and week-out, regardless of his overall game.

Possibly the best pressure putter in history and a genius with his creativity around the greens, he was able to win last week despite being wayward off the tee for most of the final round.

He found only two fairways out of seven over the front nine, yet his accurate iron play set up three birdies as he reached the turn three ahead of the chasing pack.

"I look at it this way, I put myself there," Woods told reporters after completing victory on the PGA Tour for the 34th time in 37 attempts when at least holding a share of the 54-hole lead.

"If I put myself there enough times, those things are going to happen, as well as other guys are going to make birdies to beat me. That's the way it goes.

"As long as I'm there each and every time, it's not a bad place to be."

Woods says he still has work to do on his swing before the season's first major but is thrilled to be well ahead of schedule compared to this time last year.

"I'm able to hit so many more golf shots now than I could last year at this time. On top of that, I could fix it while I'm out there playing," he said.

"Last year at this time, I had so many things I was still working on that I had a hard time fixing it. If I hit one shot, it could be three, four different things I needed to work on to try and rectify that shot."

Asked to assess his game in preparation for Augusta, he replied: "That's the beauty of it that I can be better tomorrow than I am today. The checklist is certainly smaller, but still, I've got some work to do."

Ominous words for Tiger's rivals as the gap between them and the game's best player continues to widen.

March 7, 2006


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