A Promising New Year

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KAPALUA, Hawaii--Ernie Els has gained a little weight and tweaked his driver.
 
Darren Clarke has lost a lot of weight and piqued the interest of every
European golf fan who thinks it's about time one of their own won a major this century.
 
Tiger Woods is engaged to be married. Michelle Wie and Annika Sorenstam are playing in the Pro-Am here at the Mercedes Championships Wednesday. And the guy at the voluntary COR driver testing stand isn't getting a lot of business. Vijay Singh is even supposed to do a pre-tournament press conference.
 
It's time for the start of the 2004 season. The Plantation course is still sodden from some of the worst rains in the history of the Hawaiian Islands.
 
What a difference a year makes. Just ask Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and David Duval. At this time in 2003 Mickelson was the second ranked player in the world. Now he ranks 15th. Garcia, still swallowing the bitter medicine that inevitably comes with major swing changes, has dropped from No. 4 to No. 36. Duval, like Mickelson and Garcia a former winner of this event, has free fallen from No. 15 to 242.
 
Woods hasn't won a major championship in his last six tries and the competition is emboldened by this fact. 'The Tiger Effect is not as strong as it used to be,' Els, the defending champion, said here Tuesday.
 
Els, by the way, also said this about the wet conditions: 'You're not going to see 390-400 yard drives this week.'
 
Man.
 
Davis Love said Tuesday that Els was that far (holding his fingers centimeters apart) from being the best player in the world.'
 
But, Love added, Woods is still 'the guy to beat. You will get no argument. Can he be beaten? Yes. He knows that.'
 
But he remains the focal point for 2004. In 2003 Woods came back from the pain of knee surgery to win five times. He lost the money title for the first time since 1998. Still his peers voted him player of the year.
 
You can only wonder what Woods might produce in 2004 now that the distractions of courtship and the trials of physical rehabilitation are behind him. Will he separate himself from everybody else the way he did in 2000 when he won three majors, six other PGA Tour events and set or tied 27 PGA Tour records in the process? Love calls Woods' 2000 season 'the gold standard for all great years to follow.'
 
You can only wonder if this will be the year Els, who has promised to cut down on the globetrotting schedule that has worn him out in the past, steps up and presents a season-long challenge to Woods. Or will Vijay Singh remain hot and win the Player of the Year award many people believe he should have received last year.
 
So many players. So many tournaments. So many story lines. It all starts Thursday. Seems like the 2003 season just ended. Seems like 2004 promises to be even more exciting than its immediate predecessor.
 
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