Battle for king of links

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:37 AM ET

It has been at least four years, and probably longer, since a pro golf season arrived with as much anticipation as this one.

When the PGA Tour reconvened in January of 2001, Tiger Woods' pursuit of an unprecedented fourth consecutive major championship had the golf world vibrating with excitement. Woods was coming off perhaps the most amazing single season in golf history and followed it up at the 2001 Masters.

But this year is different. Not since the days of the fabled "Big Three" has there been a murderer's row of talent lined up at the top of the game ready to duke it out.

At the top of the pile is Vijay Singh, whose Tiger-esque exploits last year at the age of 41 left everyone else, including Woods in his dust.

"You've seen the era of Nicklaus, Palmer and Player when those guys were at their best," said Singh during an interview session in Hawaii this week.

"You're seeing the same thing right now. There's not one guy dominating. There's three, four, five guys who can win the player of the year at any time.

"Everybody is geared up. It's not only us five guys. I think, you know, Weir is really pumped up, same as everybody else in the top 10 or top 15. I think you're looking at a season when there won't be too many new faces winning golf tournaments."

In the first rank, along with Singh, there is Woods, now No. 3 in the world behind Singh and Ernie Els, but making noises as if he is ready to challenge to regain his old position.

Els, of course, has become something of a hard-luck figure in this troika, always so close especially at the major championships.

There's Phil Mickelson, whose breakthrough season netted him a green jacket and his first major championship, whetting his appetite for more.

And then there is the under-appreciated Retief Goosen, the strong, silent one with the magnificent skills that have won him two United States Opens.

Singh mentioned Canadian Mike Weir, who is coming off, by his standards, an ordinary season, looking for another major triumph. He is right there along with Sergio Garcia, Davis Love III, and a dozen others with the talent, the nerve and the will to win.

Canadians should not find it difficult at all to stay interested, with four, or perhaps five, players regularly in Tour. There's Weir and Stephen Ames, both top-20 players, followed by young David Hearn of Brantford, Manitoban Glen Hnatiuk and, if he can get healthy, Ian Leggatt of Cambridge.

Nobody will be rooting for the reality to live up to the hype this season more than PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. He'll spend a lot of his time this year trying to nail down a new TV deal. The most recent time he went to that lucrative well, Finchem and his sport were riding the high of the Tiger-slam in 2001. The commish came back with a TV contract worth nearly $1 billion US.

Tiger and his famous friends will have a lot to say about how valuable this new TV contract will be. If Woods is back on his game, contending and winning on Sundays again, Finchem will get his share of the TV pie, vying with the NFL and NASCAR, who are also negotiating new deals this year.

Woods was asked this week if he's back to the place he was in in 1999, just before he made his amazing run in 2000 and into 2001.

"No," he said. "It's better.

"I just feel the swing is better. The results I had at the end of the year are just so exciting."

That should be music to Finchem's ears. For the public to stay in tune with golf on TV, Woods has to be central to the telecasts. But, he won't have it all to himself.

"Right now, Vijay is the man, obviously, as we all know" Els said. "But Phil (Mickelson) shot 59 (at the Grand Slam). Myself, I had a good year. And you've got to mention Retief here and then there's Mike Weir and Davis Love. There's a whole bunch of players."

It was just yesterday, it seems when oldtimers like Nicklaus and Palmer were complaining that nobody among Woods' peers was capable of stepping up to challenge Woods.

Perhaps, if Woods is as improved as he says he is, that will happen again. But don't count on it. He has plenty of competition now.

And that is good for golf and good for anyone who likes to watch it.


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