Big Names on Hand in Big D

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IRVING, Texas -- Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus were reminiscing last year at the Presidents Cup about similarities in their careers, not only the major championships they won but the rivals they faced.
 
Nicklaus ticked off a list of Hall of Fame players that challenged him - Arnold Palmer and Gary Player early in his career, Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller in the middle, Tom Watson toward the end.
 
Nicklaus told him that one thing never changed for 25 years: He was part of every conversation.
 
Woods can relate.
 
In the eight years he has played on the PGA Tour, Woods has had a revolving door of rivals. Still, they have never been bunched up quite like this.
 
Vijay Singh is a three-time winner this year who is closing in on No. 1 in the world.
 
Phil Mickelson is the Masters champion and has played better than anyone this year. Not only has he won twice, Lefty has been in contention on Sunday every week he has played. Only once has he finished out of the top 10.
 
Ernie Els is a two-time winner who played well enough to win the Masters, and was the first guy to start closing the gap when he won the British Open two years ago at Muirfield. He has not backed off.
 
And Woods?
 
More scrutiny than ever on his swing, his personal life, and whether he is still the dominant player.
 
'As long as your still in that conversation, you're doing all right,' Woods said Wednesday.
 
There is plenty to talk about this week.
 
The Big Four are in Big D - Woods, Singh, Els and Mickelson part of a strong field at the Byron Nelson Championship, which offers the richest purse ($5.8 million) among regular PGA Tour events.
 
Singh is the defending champion, yet all of these guys have won the Nelson over the last 10 years.
 
'It's more or less like playing a major event where all the top guys are in the field, and I think everybody is looking forward to playing this week together in one tournament,' Singh said.
 
The only one missing from the top six in the world ranking is Davis Love III (No. 4), the only one who has not won this year. Former Masters champion Mike Weir (No. 6) also is playing.
 
Woods is coming off a bizarre performance last week at the Wachovia Championship. He hit less than half his fairways on a course that had thick rough, yet still finished only one shot out of the playoff. His tie for third also enabled him to keep his distance from Singh on world ranking, expanding his 2.14 margin to 2.58.
 
Both players can't help but think about it.
 
'I do look at it because you keep telling me about it each and every week,' Woods said. 'Other than that, I'm still trying to work on my game, trying to improve, trying to win.'
 
He was on the defensive about his game during a short interview after his pro-am round, refuting theories of what he's trying to do with his swing, and laughing off suggestions getting engaged to Elin Nordegren has made him less a player.
 
'We started living together in 2002 and I won two majors that year,' Woods said. 'So, I think I'm doing all right.'
 
Singh knows he will have to keep up his amazing pace if he wants to replace Woods at No. 1, and it gets harder the closer he gets. Top 10s are no longer enough.
 
'At some point, I want to be that first-ranked player, but there's a lot of factors involved,' Singh said. 'I have to play well. Other people don't have to play as well. And I've got to win. Playing well is one thing, but winning, that's the only way I can get to the top.
 
'And winning on this tour is no easy task.'
 
It is tougher than ever at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, with so many top players in the field.
 
Els is playing for the first time since he tied for third at Hilton Head the week after the Masters. The Big Easy had a tough time getting over his close call at Augusta National, where Mickelson shot 31 on the back nine and made birdie on the 18th hole to beat him by one.
 
Els is eager to see tape of the final round. He only heard the cheers behind him that day.
 
'That afternoon will go down in Masters history,' he said. 'I don't know if you'll see a much more exciting Masters than that. And I was part of it.'
 
Els has been home in London the last three weeks, but it's time to get back to work. The Byron Nelson is the start of six straight weeks through the U.S. Open, the result of Els not wanting to miss any of his favorite tournaments.
 
He leaves for London next week and the Volvo PGA Championship, followed by the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Germany. Then he returns for the Memorial, Buick Classic and U.S. Open.
 
'All my favorite events are right after each other this year,' he said. 'I haven't done that in a while.'
 
The focus now is on the Byron Nelson and a world-class field, with four guys sure to be part of every conversation.
 
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