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Tiger Woods absent but still the one to beat

Tiger Woods will be absent when the US PGA Tour season begins here Thursday at the 5.5-million-dollar Mercedes Championship but the world's number one player remains the man in beat in 2008.

The 13-time major champion's pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' all-time major golf victory mark of 18 will be golf's underlying theme until the quest is completed or abandoned, with Woods the central figure of the drama even in absentia.

"We need to try to figure out how to put more pressure on him," world number three Jim Furyk said.

Woods, who turned 32 last Sunday, won his World Challenge event last month after a 10-week break. He won five of his last six starts in 2007 and was the runner-up in the other, leading the tour with 10,867,052 dollars in earnings.

Woods boosted his total of major titles by capturing the PGA Championship at Southern Hills last August, easing the frustration of runner-up showings at the Masters and US Opens. Woods also won the tour's inaugural FedEx Cup playoffs.

"Winning the PGA Championship was the highlight but I played consistently most of the season and am very pleased with my progress," Woods said.

"The only disappointments were coming up short at the Masters and US Open. I put myself in position both times, but just couldn't get the job done.

"I'll think about that during the next few weeks and hopefully come back even stronger in 2008."

That's enough to intimidate even the bravest rival's heart.

"I've learned you can't compare yourself to him. No one can," US veteran Steve Stricker said. "You just have to go about your own business and try and shoot the lowest score possible."

Woods does not plan to start his 2008 season until January 24 when he will defend his title at the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines near San Diego, the same California course that will host the US Open in June.

Woods has won five Buick titles at Torrey Pines and together with the Masters at Augusta National, where he has won four times, he could make a big move toward his boyhood dream of surpassing Nicklaus.

The year's other majors at the British Open at Royal Birkdale, where Woods finished third in 1998, and the PGA Championship in August at Oakland Hills near Detroit, where Woods was on a US team that was trounced by Europe in the Ryder Cup.

Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, after watching Woods win his own World Challenge last month, lamented how well Woods played after sitting out for 10 weeks.

"Doesn't help us, does it?" Montgomerie said. "If he took a bloody year off, it would help, never mind 10 weeks."

There are other storylines for the upcoming season, among them the hopes of 37-year-old US veteran Phil Mickelson to bounce back after a season dimmed by a mid-season wrist injury suffered while practicing for the US Open.

World number two Mickelson lives near Torrey Pines and would love to finally claim a breakthrough US Open triumph there after four second-place finishes. Mickelson was the US Open runner-up in 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2006.

Mickelson, like Woods, will skip the opener here in Maui.

World number four Ernie Els, who has not won a US PGA event since 2004, was a contender at the British Open and PGA Championship. The two-time US Open champion and 2002 British Open winner from South Africa would love to add another major crown.

The biggest newcomer to the US PGA Tour will be doping tests. A detection program will make its debut this year to provide assurances that golf is as clean a sport as PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem claims.

Even a sport where players are trusted to call penalties upon each other and bulking up can be costly as well as beneficial cannot ignore the doping scandals of such sports as athletics and baseball.


January 1, 2008

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