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Rivalry brews as Open approaches

These are the weeks that helped make Tiger Woods famous. These are the
weeks when he would come back from vacation, blow away the field and
shut down any talk of the gap closing. It was his edge, and he always
maintained it.

Now the game is different. Tiger isn't exactly slumping -- he started the
season with one win and four top-10s -- but he certainly isn't the Tiger
who dominated from 1999-2002. This is more of the Tiger we saw in '03,
and let us be reminded that version of Woods produced five victories and
a fifth straight Player of the Year title.

The difference in 2004 is that two golfers are at peak performance while
Tiger toils with a swing change, his 247 weeks atop the World Ranking
threatened, the indomitable edge seemingly gone. That's just part of
what gives this week's Wachovia Championship a major championship feel.

With Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson in the field at Quail Hollow
in Charlotte and the U.S. Open just seven weeks away, it's time to start
thinking about Shinnecock. Open season has begun with T-Woods ranked No.
3 in victories, quality of play and in Mickelson's case, popularity.
It's an unusual position for him to be in.

The last time we saw Woods on a golf course was Augusta. He told us that
Sunday after finishing T-22 in the Masters that he was "close." He
seemed patient, knowing that this was like the spring of '99, when he
was completing his first major swing overhaul with Butch Harmon. Then he
went to Fort Bragg to shoot guns, jump from airplanes and train with the
soldiers.

"I'm still working just as hard," Woods said at his news conference
Wednesday in Charlotte. "The things that I'm working on, you have to be
very patient when you're making changes in your swing. It's not a big
swing change like I made in '97, just little things, tweaking it here
and there. It takes time, you have to be patient with it. I'm starting
to see progress, and that's what I was doing back in '98, I was making
progress and playing more consistent golf, and that's what I'm trying to
do now."

Since Augusta the gap has narrowed at the top of the World Ranking. The
double-digit lead of last year is down to 2.14 points after Singh's
back-to-back wins at Houston and New Orleans. Since the start of 2003,
the Fijian has played 58 times worldwide, winning eight and recording 32
finishes in the top-10. He could pass Woods by the Open.

"He's been playing great since the middle of last year," Woods acknowledged.
"Nothing has really changed. He's playing really solid golf, and he's
had some pretty good success on Mondays."

Mickelson had some pretty good success on Monday as well, making birdie
on three of the last four holes for a share of second place in the HP
Classic. It was his ninth top-10 in 10 appearances this year, which
helped maintain his No. 1 stroke average and lead for Player of the Year
honors.

The Masters victory was enough to get Tiger's early vote.

"He was due to win one," Woods said. "He certainly has the talent, and the
way he went ahead and shot and made birdies on the back nine with Ernie
(Els) right there, shooting great numbers ahead of him, I think that
made it even better for him, even sweeter because he didn't back into
it, he earned it."

Woods would never admit Singh and Mickelson were motivation, but there
was a time, not too long ago, when he yearned for a competitive
challenge. Right now he has one. Actually, he has two. The first is with
his golf swing. The second is with Singh and Mickelson, both of whom are
crowding his space.

These next seven weeks will shape the road to Shinnecock. Woods added
The Wachovia Championship because he needs the work. He'll also play the
Byron Nelson and The Memorial. Singh defends next week at the Nelson,
takes a week off, travels to England for the Volvo PGA at Wentworth and
then back to Ohio for Memorial. Mickelson's tentative schedule is to
play through the Bank of America Colonial, take two weeks off, and then
maybe come back for the Buick Classic at Westchester.

All along, we've been waiting for a rivalry. We finally have one.

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine

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