Refreshing to have so much at stake

Originally Published: November 4, 2003
By Andy North | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- Before Tiger Woods came along and started dominating the PGA Tour, the Tour Championship used to be a pretty big deal at the end of the year. Routinely, the money title and Player of the Year races would be decided there.

Fight to the Finish

Those days have returned.

For the first time since B.T. (before Tiger), the Tour Championship is going to live up to its stated purpose -- to pump excitement into the end of the golf season. Sure, Woods is still far and away the best player in the world, but this year he's got some challengers to his throne.

Mickelson missing from Houston
Phil MickelsonAfter finishing 37th on the money list, Phil Mickelson is missing the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Don't worry, though, he'll be back.

This season was just a bump in the road. It was one of those years that every great player has. He got off to a slow start and started pressing a bit, and never got back on track.

Every great player has had a year like the one Mickelson had in 2003. Jack Nicklaus had a stretch where he was in the top five on the money list for something like 20 straight years, then jumped to 70th one year. Playing poorly can have a snowball effect, and Mickelson just got caught up in it.

Right now I guarantee Mickelson is as happy as can be to be home and away from the game for a little while. It's amazing the difference starting the year fresh will make for a guy mentally. I would suspect he's really looking forward to some time off and then getting ready for next year.

Vijay Singh leads Woods by $768,494 on the money list, and several other players have emerged as threats for Player of the Year as well. Singh and Woods have separated themselves a bit from the pack, but I think Masters champ Mike Weir and Davis Love III can still make a race out of it by winning this week.

Right now, Woods is the leader in the clubhouse. He's ahead in the Vardon (scoring average), he's second on the money list and has won more tournaments than anyone else (five). If I had to vote today before this event, I would say Tiger has a very slight edge over Singh, who's been on the run of his life the last month.

We forget that Singh injured his ribs early in the year while practicing, and missed a few weeks. Right now, he's just locked in. He's finished in the top 10 in nine of his last 10 events, and in the top-two in his last four.

However, I wonder whether Singh is close to the point of being physically worn out, having played 26 events already this season. I asked him whether he was feeling run down from playing so much, and he kind of laughed, basically giving me an "are you kidding me?" response. But you have to think that being in contention all these weeks has to wear on a player a little bit.

Singh has backed Woods into a corner in the money race (Woods needs to win in Houston to even have a chance at the title), but I don't think the accomplishment is as impressive when you consider he's played in nine more events than Tiger.

Woods and Singh will be paired together when play begins Thursday, but don't expect too many words to be exchanged between the two. They've had some issues with each other dating back to an encounter during the 2000 Presidents Cup, though none of it will affect either of them when play begins.

Woods has an unbelievable amount of pride. He'd love to win here and capture the money title and Player of the Year. I don't care how many times you've done it before, you want to make sure someone else doesn't take it from you. He's kind of protecting his home court, and this has been a nice home court he's enjoyed over the last five years.

Some have questioned Woods for not adding last week's Chrysler Championship to his schedule in an attempt to make up ground in the money race, but I think it was just as important for him to take that week off.

Like the majors, the Tour Championship is an event he focuses his attention on, and he rarely plays the week before a major. When a player schedules an off week before a big event, there's a reason for it -- to prepare physically and mentally.

If Woods had been playing poorly coming in, he might have added the Chrysler Championship last week. But he feels real good about his game, and was able to go home and get mentally prepared for this week. I think too often we forget the importance of mental preparation for an event, and Tiger's done that better than anybody.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North serves as an analyst for ESPN, and is in Houston this week for the Tour Championship.

Andy North joined ESPN as an on-course golf reporter in September, 1992. He serves as both an analyst and a reporter in ESPN's championship golf coverage as well as analyst for ESPN's preview shows and SportsCenter reports from major tournaments.

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