Tiger Invites All Challengers at Mercedes

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KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Ernie Els won the most golf tournaments around the world. Vijay Singh won the most money on the PGA Tour. Masters champion Mike Weir played the best in the majors.
 
They are only some of the stars on top of their game and poised to take on Tiger Woods, a notion that seemed absurd the past couple of years.
 
Woods is aware of what they did in 2003, and what they are capable of doing this year.
 
On the eve of the season-opening Mercedes Championships, he seemed to be up to the challenge.
 
'Have they closed the gap? I don't know,' Woods said. 'I look at it this way: If I'm playing well, I'll take my chances against anybody. That's the way I've always felt.
 
'When I'm playing well, I'm tough to beat.'
 
Woods was plenty tough last year. While he failed to win a major for the first time since 1998, his five victories were the most on the PGA Tour; his 68.41 scoring average was the second-best in history, and he was voted PGA Tour player of the year for the fifth straight time.
 
'People know I can still compete,' said Woods, who turned 28 last week. 'It's not like I've lost my game. I won five golf tournaments and some people said I had a terrible year. If that's my terrible year, I'll take that for the rest of my career.'
 
The 2004 season begins to take shape Thursday on the Plantation course at Kapalua, the place everyone wants to be the first full week of January - because the scenery is the best on tour, and because only players who won last year are invited to the $5 million tournament.
 
A year ago, Els won by eight shots with a record 31-under par, then became the first player in 14 years to sweep the first two events on the PGA Tour by winning in a playoff at the Sony Open.
 
'Good memories,' Els said. 'It would be nice to get off to a good start again.'
 
Els spent five weeks in South Africa, lounging on the beach during a break from his worldwide travels.
 
That wasn't the case for Singh, whose idea of a day off is to hit only a small bucket of balls.
 
No one has his sights set on Woods like the hardworking Fijian, who denied Woods a fifth straight money title and nearly beat him out for player of the year.
 
When the final event ended Dec. 8 at the Target World Challenge, he said he didn't play for three or four days.
 
Didn't touch a club?
 
'I swing it in the house,' Singh said, without even a trace of a smile.
 
The 40-year-old Singh has worked too hard on his game to let it slip, which is why he likes to stay sharp year round. There won't be much rust to shake off at Kapalua.
 
'I don't like to get to a tournament and try to find it,' Singh said. 'I know a lot of guys out there are doing that this week. I like to be ready to play.'
 
What he really wants is to topple Tiger.
 
Woods has been No. 1 in the world since the '99 PGA Championship, and he likely will break Greg Norman's record of 331 weeks at the top sometime in August.
 
'I don't think I can catch him this year,' Singh said. 'Maybe in a year or so. I'd like to play the way I've been playing. I cannot play any worse and get to No. 1, let's put it that way.'
 
Still, optimism hasn't been running this high at the start of a season in years.
 
'Things have changed a little bit,' Els said. 'I think the 'Tiger effect' is not as strong as it used to be. I think guys go into a week and feel if they play their games, it might be good enough.'
 
Woods missed the Mercedes Championships last year while recovering from knee surgery.
 
Having him back at Kapalua only adds to the anticipation, especially with Els as the defending champion.
 
Four years ago, they engaged in an epic duel on the weekend at the Mercedes Championships. It ended with both making eagles on the 18th hole, both making birdie on No. 18 in the playoff, and Woods finally winning with a 40-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole.
 
Woods went on to one of the greatest seasons ever in golf - nine victories, three straight majors, a record scoring average and more than $9 million.
 
Els was so overwhelmed that he said that day, 'I think he's a legend in the making. He's 24. He's probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he gets into his 40s.'
 
Times have changed.
 
'Tiger is still Tiger,' Els said. 'The tour is still the tour. We've still got to play golf tournaments. But I think the standard of play on tour the last three years has definitely increased a hell of a lot.'
 
The top 10 players on the money list all earned at least $3 million last year. Only two of those - Kenny Perry and rising star Chad Campbell - have not won a major.
 
'We're all right there,' Love said. 'There's a big group that's chasing (Woods). He knows it. He likes it that way. He prefers it that way.'
 
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