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Tiger is leader of the pack

2/14/2006 - Golf Tiger Woods

It is more than a week later, and we are still wondering how he did it. How he won a tournament in which he sprayed his drives all over the Middle East. How he won a tournament in which he turned a final-round 75 into a 69 and a playoff victory over Ernie Els.

Nobody does it like Tiger Woods, which leads us to this week's Nissan Open, a tournament he has never won.

Woods enters 2-for-2 on the year, with playoff victories at the Buick Invitational and Dubai Desert Classic, despite some serious flaws. With Woods, we are always talking about something.

Whether it is dominating the way he did several years ago or fighting to stay among the elite (as was the case two years ago) or emerging from a pack of elite players to take over again (as he did last year), Woods is part of the discussion.

Woods is again firmly in control, even if his game does not always suggest that to be the case.

Yet it wasn't all that long ago we were talking about Woods and a foursome of players who were willing and able to take him on.

At this time last year, Vijay Singh was the No. 1 player in the world and had won 10 times on the PGA Tour since the beginning of the 2004 season.

Els had moved to No. 3 in the world heading into The Masters and had two victories on the European Tour and three top-10s on the PGA Tour.

Phil Mickelson was ranked fourth, with two early-season victories and a runner-up finish to Woods at Doral.

And although Retief Goosen had not won by this point last year, he was in the mix and would go on to win the International and two events on the European Tour. It wasn't just Tiger; it was the Big Five.

All but Woods had been a factor in the majors in 2004, which set up an interesting year.

"I live for those moments," Woods said at the time. "That's exactly why you practice, to be in that position and try to handle the situation. That's what you dream about as kids, going against the best.

"It doesn't happen very often because of the nature of our sport, our travel schedules and the fact that you can't always play well each and every week. It's very rare that we separate ourselves and focus on each other in the final group. That doesn't happen very often. So when you do have that opportunity, you'd like to take advantage of it."

Woods did -- in a big way.

He won The Masters and the British Open. He finished second at the U.S. Open to Michael Campbell and was tied for fourth at the PGA Championship, two strokes behind Mickelson. He won six times on the PGA Tour.

And he has started off strong again this year.

Remember when Woods was the only thing going in golf? When everybody seemingly stumbled in his shadow?

From the 1999 PGA Championship through the 2002 U.S. Open, Woods won seven major championships. He also won 22 PGA Tour events in that period.

Then he seemed somewhat mortal. Although he won eight times between 2002 and 2004, he didn't win any majors. And Woods had just a single PGA Tour victory in '04 as Singh emerged as the top player.

Woods showed he was back with a couple of overseas victories, which led to a strong 2005. Singh, Els, Mickelson and Goosen were all on top of their games.

Now, only Woods has a victory in 2006.

It will be another week, at the Match Play Championship, before they are all together in the same field again, but the state of golf has returned to where it once was. Where it goes is still to be determined.


Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.