Tiger has plenty of competition

Next time, let's make it for the green jacket.

Let's play the Masters right now while all of these guys are this hot. If there has been one thing missing in the Tiger Woods Era, it is all of the top players performing at their best at the same time. When Tiger was Tiger, he was so thoroughly inside the heads of his main rivals that all he had to do was show up on a Sunday and he won. And lo and behold, when Woods went missing in search of a new swing, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh remembered they were supposed to be the ones to challenge him. Now it seems as if we might finally see the showdowns we've been craving.

It says something about how Woods completely demoralized his opposition during the first six years of his professional career that his most memorable duels were against Bob May in a playoff at the 2000 PGA Championship and 19-year-old Sergio Garcia in a stirring final round at the 1999 PGA Championship. His other six major titles were won by 15, 12, eight, three, three and two strokes, respectively. Maybe that oh-so-sexy final-round leaderboard Sunday in the Ford Championship at Doral is a prelude of what the major championships have in store for us. Maybe that is the message of the way the whole season has been going so far.

The fact that Woods edged Mickelson by one stroke on Sunday at Doral is almost not as important as the fact that they were both there to contend. And that Vijay Singh rallied with a 66 to finish third. And that Ernie Els made an eagle on the final hole to win the Dubai Desert Classic. So far this year, PGA Tour winners have included Woods, Mickelson, Singh, Adam Scott and David Toms -- all top-10 players in the Official World Ranking. And the only reason Els isn't on that list is because he's been too busy picking up appearance fees and trophies just about everywhere else in the world.

The one time the best in the world had a chance to show what it was made of against Woods was in the 2002 Masters, the seventh of Tiger's eight major championships. Going into the final round, five of the top-seven players in the world were within striking distance. Surely, one of them would chase him down. But no one among Mickelson (then No. 2), Els (No. 3), Retief Goosen (No. 4), Garcia (No. 5) and Singh (No. 7) could make a move. Wouldn't you like to see all of those guys in the same position this year at Augusta National? Don't you think if the stage were set now in the exact same way it was set back then the performances would be a little more compelling?

There certainly have been some moments over the last 2½ years, as Woods has gone 10 consecutive major championships without a victory, when it seemed as if we had seen the best of his career. And it is certainly true that we may never see a year like 2000 again -- nine victories, including three majors championships -- but then again we had never seen a year like that before. Yes, there was room to wonder if Tiger would ever be Tiger again. Yes, there was room to wonder if the second major swing change of his career was ill-advised. And yes, there was room to wonder if the magic would ever return.

Wonder no more.

Suddenly, Woods is once again hitting shots that no one else can hit. Like on No. 8 at Doral on Sunday when he drove it 363 yards. Or on No. 12 when he laced a 3-wood 278 yards to 18 feet and knocked in the putt for an eagle and the lead. Or on the par-4 16th hole on Saturday when he flew it onto the green 373 yards away. Or on No. 17 in the final round when he rolled in the 18-foot birdie putt that gave him the lead for good.

But for my money the real fun was what happened after the eagle Woods made on No. 12. How cool was it that on the next hole Mickelson lasered a 3-iron to 12 feet and made the birdie putt? And how cool was it that on the following hole Phil knocked it to eight feet and made the putt to get the match back to all square? Three years ago, that would not have happened. Three years ago when Woods would make an eagle to take a two-stroke lead his challengers would roll over and die. Suddenly now it seems as if the playing field is a little more level.

As disturbing as it was that the key stroke of the entire tournament could have been the five-foot par miss Mickelson had on No. 16, the fact is that there was more room for joy than sorrow in the Lefty camp. He did hang in there, and he did almost chip in for birdie on the final hole and force a playoff. That bounce back by Mickelson after the eagle by Woods was very encouraging. It could just be that when Woods become Tiger again -- and he is almost there -- it will be without the intimidation factor he had before. It could be this time the boys will hang with him.

Let's hope this is the beginning of a period of real rivalries in the Woods Era. Let's hope now the contenders will be more than pretenders when they go up against Woods in the final round of tournaments. It does seem as if this much is clear: The fact that Woods' victory at Doral moved him back into the No. 1 spot in the Official World Ranking is more than symbolic. The mere 129 strokes Woods needed over 36 holes on the weekend at the Ford Championship roared this message: Tiger is back.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine

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