Catching Tiger all about perception
HOUSTON -- The last time Tiger Woods came to Champions Golf Club, he had only one victory in his previous eight tournaments, nearly missed the cut at a major championship and wasn't in contention at two others.
Yes, he was still No. 1 in the world.
The difference is that two years ago, no one had any illusions of replacing him.
''I feel like my game right now is as strong as it's been,'' Vijay Singh said recently during his climb to No. 2, his highest ranking ever.
''If I play like I'm doing right now for the next two or three years, I'm going to contend for the No. 1 spot,'' he said. ''That's my goal.''
Ernie Els knows how the World Ranking works.
The Big Easy understands the distance between him (No. 3) and Woods is about as wide as the oceans Els crosses while playing a worldwide schedule. But he has won seven times this year, and believes his best is still to come.
''I just want to play as good as I can and try and become No. 1,'' Els said.
That goal would have been laughable 16 months ago, when Woods won The Masters and U.S. Open, and the gap between him and everyone else was more like a gulf.
Are Singh and Els playing so well that No. 1 is a possibility?
Singh has won or finished second in his last four PGA Tour events, and he has been in the top 10 at every tournament but one since the Fourth of July. Numbers aside, he is overpowering courses like Woods, and the belly putter has finally given him confidence on the greens.
Singh only needs to finish in a three-way for third this week -- no matter what Woods does -- to win the PGA Tour money title. Woods has won the title four years in a row.
''After Tiger's 2000 season, I don't think anyone would have thought that he would not have led the money list for the next five or six years,'' Charles Howell III said.
Els' record doesn't look as impressive to those with narrow minds or short memories. He hasn't won on the PGA Tour since winning the first two in Hawaii, although he has won more than anyone this year while logging about 100,000 miles in the air.
Is Woods playing that poorly?
Singh has a $768,464 lead on the money list, and it didn't happen by accident. What does that say about Woods, who has played in nine fewer events?
Woods has won five times -- the fifth straight year he's won at least that many. Nick Price is the only other player to have won five times in one season over the last 20 years.
Woods' adjusted scoring average (68.19) is the second-lowest in history, behind his 67.79 average in 2000 when only four of his 76 rounds were over par.
Catching Tiger is all about perception.
Singh suggested as much when he won the John Deere Classic and said he wanted to win the money list ''just once before I finish.''
''This will probably be the best opportunity that I get,'' Singh said.
Why is this his best chance?
Because the big Fijian doesn't expect to play this well next year? Or because he doesn't expect Woods to leave the door this far open?
Els' ambitions are more a product of Jos Vanstiphout, the Belgian mind guru who keeps beating into Els' head to worry about his own game. While the world rankings are usually accurate at the top -- Singh at No. 2, Els at No. 3 -- Els has proven to be the most consistent rival to Woods over the last five years.
Still, replacing him at No. 1 in the World Ranking will take more than talk.
It will take more than a good year.
Still, players are starting to believe Woods can be caught.
''The whole standard of the tour has improved,'' Retief Goosen said. ''It's going to be more difficult for Tiger to win week-in and week-out. There's going to be so many more guys that can win. And they probably feel if they have a great couple of years, they've got a chance to move very close to him.''
Thomas Bjorn once said the gap between Woods and everyone else is as large as Woods wants it to be.
That's still the case.
Closing the gap on Woods depends more on his game than those behind him.
''As long as Tiger keeps his level at 75 percent, they can't catch him for a long time,'' Rocco Mediate said. ''If he goes crazy, it's over. If one of those guys goes out and wins two or three majors, that's a different story.
''Can they do it? We'll find out in the next five years.''
Singh and Els no doubt have cranked up their games a notch. They are closer to Woods than they were two years ago. That they can even talk about being No. 1 no longer seems like such a stretch.
How long that lasts is anyone's guess.
''At least it now seems like there's some light,'' Mediate added. ''But Tiger says, 'I'm about to put the light out, boys. I'm not putting up with this any more.'''
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press
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