Rivalry brews as Open approaches

Updated: May 6, 2004, 11:34 AM ET
By Tim Rosaforte | Golf World

These are the weeks that helped make Tiger Woods famous. These are the weeks when he would come back from vacation, blow away the field and shut down any talk of the gap closing. It was his edge, and he always maintained it.

Now the game is different. Tiger isn't exactly slumping -- he started the season with one win and four top-10s -- but he certainly isn't the Tiger who dominated from 1999-2002. This is more of the Tiger we saw in '03, and let us be reminded that version of Woods produced five victories and a fifth straight Player of the Year title.

Tiger Woods
Getty ImagesEven when struggling, Woods kept focused on the task at hand.

The difference in 2004 is that two golfers are at peak performance while Tiger toils with a swing change, his 247 weeks atop the World Ranking threatened, the indomitable edge seemingly gone. That's just part of what gives this week's Wachovia Championship a major championship feel.

With Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson in the field at Quail Hollow in Charlotte and the U.S. Open just seven weeks away, it's time to start thinking about Shinnecock. Open season has begun with T-Woods ranked No. 3 in victories, quality of play and in Mickelson's case, popularity. It's an unusual position for him to be in.

The last time we saw Woods on a golf course was Augusta. He told us that Sunday after finishing T-22 in the Masters that he was "close." He seemed patient, knowing that this was like the spring of '99, when he was completing his first major swing overhaul with Butch Harmon. Then he went to Fort Bragg to shoot guns, jump from airplanes and train with the soldiers.

"I'm still working just as hard," Woods said at his news conference Wednesday in Charlotte. "The things that I'm working on, you have to be very patient when you're making changes in your swing. It's not a big swing change like I made in '97, just little things, tweaking it here and there. It takes time, you have to be patient with it. I'm starting to see progress, and that's what I was doing back in '98, I was making progress and playing more consistent golf, and that's what I'm trying to do now."

Since Augusta the gap has narrowed at the top of the World Ranking. The double-digit lead of last year is down to 2.14 points after Singh's back-to-back wins at Houston and New Orleans. Since the start of 2003, the Fijian has played 58 times worldwide, winning eight and recording 32 finishes in the top-10. He could pass Woods by the Open.

Quiet, Please
Will the Memorial be the last PGA tournament ever for Jack Nicklaus? Based on the number of times the Golden Bear has mentioned retirement since the 1986 Masters, definitely not. But there was Nicklaus last week at the Nationwide Tour event in South Carolina, reiterating what he said at Augusta National last month. Except this time, it wasn't on the same day Arnold Palmer was playing his last Masters. If Jack means it this time, he should quit. Otherwise, he should accept being 64 and understand that people don't expect him to be competitive at that age. They just want to see a legend. They don't care what he shoots.

Or what she shoots. JoAnne Carner already held the LPGA Tour record as the oldest player to make a cut when she played on the weekend at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March. On top of that, after turning 65 in April, Big Momma made the cut last weekend in the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship in Stockbridge, Ga. "I was thinking the last time I was out here, I've got Michelle Wie by 50 years," Carner recently told the Palm Beach Post. "I go in the locker room and everybody is complaining about how tired they are. The difference is they're so tired they're going to the fitness center to work out. I'm going home, putting my feet up, and mixing a drink."

-- Tim Rosaforte

"He's been playing great since the middle of last year," Woods acknowledged. "Nothing has really changed. He's playing really solid golf, and he's had some pretty good success on Mondays."

Mickelson had some pretty good success on Monday as well, making birdie on three of the last four holes for a share of second place in the HP Classic. It was his ninth top-10 in 10 appearances this year, which helped maintain his No. 1 stroke average and lead for Player of the Year honors.

The Masters victory was enough to get Tiger's early vote.

"He was due to win one," Woods said. "He certainly has the talent, and the way he went ahead and shot and made birdies on the back nine with Ernie (Els) right there, shooting great numbers ahead of him, I think that made it even better for him, even sweeter because he didn't back into it, he earned it."

Woods would never admit Singh and Mickelson were motivation, but there was a time, not too long ago, when he yearned for a competitive challenge. Right now he has one. Actually, he has two. The first is with his golf swing. The second is with Singh and Mickelson, both of whom are crowding his space.

These next seven weeks will shape the road to Shinnecock. Woods added The Wachovia Championship because he needs the work. He'll also play the Byron Nelson and The Memorial. Singh defends next week at the Nelson, takes a week off, travels to England for the Volvo PGA at Wentworth and then back to Ohio for Memorial. Mickelson's tentative schedule is to play through the Bank of America Colonial, take two weeks off, and then maybe come back for the Buick Classic at Westchester.

All along, we've been waiting for a rivalry. We finally have one.

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine

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