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It's Woods vs The World at Valderrama

Along the winding Mediterranean coast toward Valderrama are several billboards of a larger-than-life photo of Tiger Woods, eyes peering down as he invites one and all to meet him for the final World Golf Championship event.

That's about what it comes down to this week.

The American Express Championship, which begins Thursday on the course where Woods had the greatest setback of his career, is more of a world challenge than a world championship.

Even in a field of 62 top players from the five major PGA Tours around the globe, the challenge has never been so succinct.

Can anyone beat Woods?

Recent history suggests otherwise. Since winning the last WGC event in August, Woods has played only two tournaments and won them both, including a four-stroke margin last week in the Tour Championship against the 28 top money-winners on the PGA Tour.

A victory this week at Valderrama Golf Club would make him the first player since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win four straight tournaments, and the first to win eight PGA Tour-sanctioned events in one season since Johnny Miller in 1974.

If the pressure is mounting, Woods seems impervious to it.

"I go to every tournament to try to win, regardless of what the expectation of the public is," Woods said. "And this year, I've done a pretty good job of accomplishing my goals. Hopefully, this week I can do it again."

Already, players are lining up to take their best shot.

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The player all of Spain would love to see take down Woods is 19-year-old Sergio Garcia, a two-time winner who put a major scare into Woods in the PGA Championship.

"He can be beat," Sergio Garcia offered Wednesday. "You probably have to play really well. You never know if he's going to play great or he's going to play not that good, and maybe somebody can beat him. I'm motivated to play Tiger again."

Colin Montgomerie considers himself just as much a favorite, especially on this track. He won the Volvo Masters here in 1993, and three times he has won the European money list because of a solid final round at Valderrama.

"It brings back good memories every time I play here," said Montgomerie, a six-time winner on the European tour this year. "It's a course that does suit me, and I stand on the first tee very, very confident on this course."

Still, Montgomerie is the first to agree that Woods is clearly playing on a different level than everyone else.

"It's quite phenomenal," the Scotsman said.

The last time Montgomerie played Valderrama was in the Ryder Cup two years ago, picking up 3-1/2 points in a European victory -- a week Woods might just as soon forget.

Having won the Masters in record fashion, plus three other PGA Tour events to rise to No. 1 in the world, Woods went 1-3-1 in the Ryder Cup and lost a pivotal singles match to former factory worker Costantino Rocca.

But that came at a time, Woods points out, when he was in the middle of rebuilding his swing. He returns to Valderrama with incredible credentials and a swing that is becoming more natural with every week.

"This year it's been different," he said. "I'm playing a little better than I was then. And the shots that I have in my repertoire now are far better than what I had in '97. I'm very excited about getting out there and playing in a tournament."

The presence of Woods has received about as much attention as the absence of so many other top players. David Duval, Greg Norman, Mark O'Meara and Fred Couples are among those who decided to stay home this week.

Davis Love III almost joined them until he worked out a glitch in his swing and received a good report on his arm and shoulder.

Love, who arrived Wednesday morning, has won at least once every year but 1994 this decade. Last week was such a blur as he tried to cope with Payne Stewart's death in a plane crash that only when he read the newspaper Monday morning did it sink in that he finished second to Woods in Houston.

"I'm excited about playing," he said.

The field is determined by the top 50 players in the world ranking, along with leading money winners from all five tours not in the top 50 -- 30 from the PGA Tour, 20 from Europe and three each from the Australasian, Japan and South African tours.

The last WGC event was supposed to bring a dramatic conclusion, only Woods took care of that by winning so often that he has a $1.97 million lead on the PGA Tour money list.

In Europe, it's another story. The European purses are at least half of what they are in America, and none comes close to the $5 million at stake this week.

Despite the sensational season by Montgomerie, and his record $2 million in earnings, he can still be denied a seventh straight Order of Merit should Garcia, Lee Westwood or Retief Goosen win this week.

"It's all come down to one huge, huge purse at the end of the day," Montgomerie said. "But I'm going out there to try to win the tournament myself. That will take care of everything."