Tiger is unquestionably the King of the Jungle on the PGA Tour. Every year the topic is debated, 'Who will challenge Woods for supremacy?' And each season it becomes more apparent that there isnt a single player, but a group who will have to surround and help attack the Tiger King in order to take him down.
Theres Phil Mickelson. Theres Ernie Els. There are Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen. All are worthy opponents, and each has tripped up Tiger a time or two in his career. However, all are a few steps behind the worlds No. 1, and their time to make up ground is ticking away.
Of the top 35 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, only three are in their 20s: Woods, Sergio Garcia and Charles Howell III.
Howell is 23, three and a half years younger than Woods. Garcia will turn 23 on Thursday. And because of the age factor, both figure to be Woods chief rivals in the long run.
I look at myself because of my youth, responded Garcia when asked who is Tigers most natural opponent. I have more years to come.
Howell isnt as outwardly confident as Garcia, but he too inwardly believes that he can one day topple Tiger in the world rankings.
Oh, definitely, he said. Im working as hard as I can work. Im doing everything I can do. If it doesnt happen from that, at least I can live with myself.
Howell and Garcia both played all over the world following the official close to the 2002 season, and both have been practicing over the past month in preparation for the new year.
Overall, both would consider last season to be a moderate success. Howell garnered his first tour title at the now-defunct Michelob Championship, and played in his first Tour Championship. Garcia won the Mercedes and also captured another crown in Europe.
But there was one thing lacking for both.
Be a little more consistent, Garcia said.
Garcia boasted at the beginning of 2002 that he wanted to win both the PGA Tour and European Tour money titles. He started out nicely with a first-place payday at Kapalua, and won a couple of months later in Spain.
But in terms of official titles, that was it. He finished 12th in earnings Stateside and sixth overseas.
I feel like last year was a pity, I really do, he said. I really felt like I started the year, probably the first six months, playing really well. Unfortunately, I was putting badly.
I didnt win as many times as I should have, or at least as I feel I that I should have.
Howell didnt get his first win of the season ' and of his career ' until October. He started out well with three top-10s in his first five starts, but didnt make another top 10 until late August.
I was really pressing to stay in the top 50 in the world ranking to get into the U.S. Open and British Open, explained Howell, who fell outside of that number and missed both majors. It seems to me the harder I tried, the worse I did.
After taking his first ever vacation, in the Bahamas the week before Bethpage, Howell returned a little more relaxed. It showed in his victory in Virginia, his tie for third in Reno and his runner-up in the season finale.
Now, hes safely inside the top 50 in the world ranking (23rd), and finally feels comfortable with his status on tour.
This is the first year where Ive kind of been on a level playing field with a lot of the top players in the world, being in all four majors and World (Golf Championship) events, he said. That makes a huge difference. So maybe its more peace of mind, but it helps.
As for his goals this season, Howell hopes to improve upon last years performance.
The No. 1 goal is to be top 5 on the money list. I think thats a fair goal, he said. Id love to win two tournaments this year.
Garcias goals, however, are a bit loftier. He wants to win a major -- he was the only player to finish inside the top 10 in all four majors last year -- and once again wants to double dip on both tours money lists, despite playing in a couple of fewer tournaments in the U.S.
You got to play well all year long; thats always hard to do, said Garcia, who is ranked fourth in the world. But its a good goal to aim at.
You just got to be more consistent. You have to make a lot of top 10s, win as many as you can. I mean, Tiger is playing 18 tournaments a year. Hes winning (the PGA Tour money title). Why not (me)?
Garcia and Howell will each get a nice jump on Woods, as the 27-year-old is rehabilitating following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in December. He is likely out of commission until the middle of February.
I hope he takes his time in getting better, said Howell with a smile. Ill go out and see him when I get home, tell him to just take his time.
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