Love, Els and Weir join Tiger at the top


For those who pine for a little drama, a meaningful march to the end of the golf season, you couldn't have asked for a better start. In recent years, Tiger Woods has had the PGA Tour money title all but secured by this point in the season. Not so in 2003.

That's not to say that Woods won't again kick into high gear and waltz to the title. He might sweep the rest of the major championships or win double the number of tournaments as any other player. It could be the same scenario when the Tour Championship rolls around in six months.

But for now, there is a nice battle brewing, a few players who have at least stepped up to make it interesting. They might not be challenging Woods' dominance, but they are at least making people wonder if they can.

Davis Love III needed a 67-foot chip-in for birdie on the 72nd hole, then had to dodge Woody Austin's bumbling putter in a sudden-death playoff to prevail on the fourth extra hole at the MCI Heritage, his 17th PGA Tour victory, fifth at Hilton Head and third this year.

Love, at 39, is off to the best start of his career. He now leads the PGA Tour money list.

But he is not alone.

Mike Weir also has won three times, including his first major championship at The Masters.

Ernie Els won the first two PGA Tour events, won two more in Australia and moved to second in the World Ranking.

And, of course, there is Woods, who returned from offseason knee surgery to win his first tournament back at the Buick Invitational, then added the World Match Play Championship and his fourth consecutive Bay Hill Invitational.

So that's four players, three with three PGA Tour victories and another with two wins in the United States and two more overseas. Remarkably, the Big Four have accounted for 11 of the 16 PGA Tour titles this year. And that's saying something considering we're coming off a season that saw 18 players pick up their first winner's checks.

Since Woods is the unquestioned No. 1 player in the world, the others are doing their best to at least make him sweat. Here's a rundown on their seasons so far:

Ernie Els

Els got off to a phenomenal start this year, winning the Mercedes Championships and the Sony Open on the PGA Tour, finishing second in Singapore, then winning two tournaments in Australia. He was defeated in the first round of the Match Play Championship, then finished second in Dubai. That's four wins in six stroke-play events, with two runner-up finishes.

But Els made the mistake of working out with a punching bag in early March and he injured his wrist. That caused a lackluster performance against Woods at Bay Hill and a withdrawal from the Players Championship. Els showed some fortitude at The Masters, where he opened with a 79 but rallied to tie for fifth.

Then on Sunday, he was poised to win the Heritage. Els had a two-stroke lead standing on the 16th tee, then inexplicably hit a driver out of bounds. Who knows if it had anything to do with the fact that regular caddie Ricci Roberts was not on the bag, but Els mis-clubbed three times on the last three holes and finished double bogey-bogey-bogey when three pars very likely would have given him his third PGA Tour victory of the year.

The Pros: Since his British Open victory last summer, Els has been a different player with a newfound confidence. He's even jumped to second in the World Ranking behind Woods. Although he had an early lead on the money list, he has slipped to fourth, some $1.5 million behind Love.

The Cons: None of his victories this year have come with Woods in the field.

Davis Love III
Love needed a chip-in for birdie at the 72nd hole to tie Austin on Sunday and he also needed some good fortune to win at Pebble Beach. But there was no quibbling with his final-round 64 to win the Players Championship.

That was an impressive victory, and now Love sits atop the money list with $3.6 million. Amazingly, Love has never won the money title. His top finish was runner-up to Fred Couples in 1992.

He's already won more money this year than all of last year, when he finished 21st on the money list with $2,056,160.

The Pros: All of Love's victories have come at excellent venues and top-notch tournaments. His win at the Players was the result of one of the best rounds of his career, and he did it with Woods in the field. He is now the third-ranked player in the world.

The Cons: Love was never a factor at The Masters and his victory on Sunday was very fortunate. He needed Els to collapse, and Austin had two excellent chances to close him out in the playoff and couldn't do it.

Mike Weir
Weir is the most surprising player of the bunch. He didn't post a single top-10 finish in 2002 and came into this season as an afterthought.

But he won the Bob Hope with a 72nd-hole birdie, then won the Nissan Open, rallying to overtake Charles Howell III. He became the first Canadian to win a major championship, riding an improved short game to victory at Augusta.

The wedge to set up his birdie Sunday at the 15th hole to tie, then the two clutch par-putt saves at the 17th and 18th holes were the stuff of legend.

The Pros: Weir has moved up to fifth in the World Ranking and is second on the money list with $3.2 million. Two of his three victories have come with Woods in the field.

The Cons: Weir's win at the Bob Hope was helped along by 49-year-old Jay Haas hitting into the water at the 72nd hole and was done at a venue that is not the most challenging.

The Consensus: Weir has a major, Love a near-major. Weir won twice with Woods in the field, Love just once.

So far, Weir is presenting the greatest challenge to Woods.

But it all can change. And quickly.

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