Driving Off with a Win is Paramount

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Its a tough assignment here at Kapalua. As I bang away on the computer here from my lanai at Kapalua Bay Hotel with the sun in my eyes and the pounding surf closer than should be allowed at this time of year, Im convinced that winning this week is hugely important for the biggest fish in this field.
 
Lets start with No. 1 Vijay Singh. He ended last year with nine wins and nearly $11 million. Most importantly, he finished the year as World No. 1 and PGA Tour Player of the Year. All thats great, but you can bet hes heard the rumblings that Tiger Woods is more than just close. Vijay would like to have none of that talk as the year gets going. His first-round 66 here gave him the first-round lead and put players on alert that Singh wont surrender the ranking, the accolades or the spotlight without a fight. A Singh win this week would be huge for him ' making a big statement about what his role will be in the 2005 PGA Tour storyline.

As for No. 2 Tiger, he really is close. Im no swing analyst, but I consider myself a good listener. I believe what I hear and what I see makes sense. Having talked with Woods at the Target World Challenge last month, I noticed the smirk of confidence having returned to his face. Newly married and newly 29 years of age, Woods has been on the PGA Tour 10 years now, and until now, has begun each and every season as the man to beat. This years conventional thinking says that honor belongs to Singh. But with apologies to Vijay, I think its Woods. It wont take long to see if he is back. This week presents more than just an opportunity to get an official stroke-play win, it gives Woods and his fans a chance to really do some fist-pumping, and yell look out below to those whod finish below him on the final Mercedes Championships leaderboard!
 
How about No. 3 Ernie Els. Hes my pick for PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2005 (more on that later). Els is in his mid-30s now and appears more ready than ever to put the job of winning on the PGA Tour at the top of his priority list. Hes been dominant wherever hes played, but skeptics (including PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem) have said he hasnt played enough in the U.S. Well, the other day, Els, who's smoothed things over with the tour, said hell play the first three West Coast events in succession, and if things dont go as planned, may add an event early in the schedule. Ernie came closer than anyone last year to winning all four majors. He walked away with zero. A win this week puts him on the right track. Els and Woods dont play as often as Singh, making each start more critical. Big payday this week ' important if the money title is a goal.
 
No. 4 in the world is Retief Goosen. His late season win at the Tour Championship capped off a fantastic season. Later he won the big money Nedbank Challenge. Retief isnt the type to trumpet his wins or his goals. But hes the wildcard in all of this. A few early-season wins propel him in the right direction and give him plenty of publicity. A win here at Kapalua over Singh, Woods and Els gives us good reason to shout his name more often -- whether hes comfortable with that or not.
 
Here are a couple of other thoughts looking ahead this year. This weeks Mercedes Championships give us reason to forecast a little bit. Our 'Sprint Pre-Post Game' producer Eric Saperstein put us on the spot for picks. If you didnt catch them, heres mine.
 
Player of Year: Els. Easy to go with Woods, which my buddies Brian Hewitt and Mark Rolfing did. I gave it great thought, too. But Player of the Year comes down to major championship wins IF you win more than one. And I think Els gets two this year. I really like him at the Masters, and I like him even more at Baltusrol and the PGA Championship. A few other wins sprinkled in and Els becomes '05s Vijay and maybe World No. 1.
 
Comeback Player: Rocco Mediate. Id love to see David Duval hit the jackpot. A perplexing story without an ending yet, Duvals confidence will be the deciding factor. Mediate had injury trouble again last year. The back is always a trouble spot. Hes playing '05 on a one-time Top 50 Career Money exemption. Usually when guys dip into that bag to stay afloat they swim hard and fast. Roccos got plenty left in the tank.
 
First Win/Breakout Player: This is a fun category. Harrison Frazar is more due than a 10-year-old library book and I like his chances. But hes been so close so often its too easy to tab him. I like Briny Baird. A few tours of duty on the Nationwide Tour really seasoned this guy. Hes a straight shooter from the fairway ' one of the best in G.I.R. Hes contended and nearly won (John Deere Classic when David Gossett won), but has always been a consistent money winner. Money is nice; wins get you to Kapalua. Ill plan on seeing Briny here next year.
 
Thats all for now, gotta get some sun before I go to work. Aloha!
 
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