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Challenge Awaits Tiger Upon Return

04 Buick InvitationalLA JOLLA, Calif. -- Tiger Woods couldn't help but stop and soak up the view on the 13th tee at Torrey Pines, a blue panorama of clear skies and the Pacific Ocean as far as he could see.
'It wasn't like this last year,' Woods said, recalling rain and a soupy fog that greeted his return to the PGA Tour at the Buick Invitational.
That isn't the only difference.
A year ago, Woods wasn't sure how his left knee was going to respond to surgery that kept him away from competitive golf for two months. Ernie Els had won three tournaments, Davis Love III was coming off a victory at Pebble Beach and Mike Weir was already showing signs of being a Masters champion.
Now, his chief challenge is as clear as the skies over Torrey Pines - Vijay Singh, owner of the longest top-10 streak in 27 years, a man in full command of his golf game.
Woods sees him as only the latest rival.
David Duval in 1999. Phil Mickelson the next two years. Ernie Els in 2002.
'He's definitely up there,' Woods said of Singh, whose victory last week at Pebble Beach was his third in nine tour events, and 12th consecutive finish in the top 10. 'Everyone has their own little run where we all play well. I think it's a fun time in golf right now because there are a lot of different challengers out there.'
The fun really gets started Thursday at the Buick Invitational on two courses at Torrey Pines (South and North), a tournament that tends to favor the big hitters.
Woods is the defending champion - yes, the knee held up just fine as he won by four shots.
Mickelson, coming off his worst season, opened the year with a victory in the Bob Hope Classic, a tie for seventh in Phoenix and third place last week at Pebble Beach. He is a three-time winner at Torrey Pines, and will be among the favorites this week.
Still, much of the focus is on Singh.
'I already feel like I'm going to play well,' Singh said. 'I guess that's the momentum carrying me through.'
The Fijian actually has bad memories of this place. It was last year when he tucked a tiny sponge ball under his left armpit as part of a drill during a five-hour session on the practice range.
He felt pain, but figured it would go away. When he finished his marathon session, it hurt even worse. He withdrew from the tournament, discovered he had a cracked rib and missed the next five weeks.
He returns to Torrey Pines only two top 10s away from the record Jack Nicklaus strung together in 1977, and closer to Woods in the world ranking than anyone has been in nearly five years.
'It catches your attention,' Singh said.
Everything else, however, is business as usual. Players stop him wherever he goes to congratulate him on his success. Singh even sees them studying the way he practices, realizing there might be something to the long hours he puts in.
The streak is merely a byproduct of his work, as is his goal of replacing Woods at No. 1.
'I'm not thinking about the streak,' he said. 'I wasn't even aware of it until guys started talking about it. I'm sure it's going to end one day. I'm just going to try to play the best I can.'
Mickelson played the first three rounds of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am with Singh, and said it was easy to see the biggest difference in his game.
'Putting,' Mickelson said. 'He's always driven it straight. He's always hit pretty good irons, pretty good short game. But he's making everything.'
Singh took mild exception to that assessment.
'I putted good with Phil. Maybe that's why he thought I was putting well,' Singh said with a laugh. 'I hit the ball pretty good, too.'
It's difficult to assess how Woods is playing because he hasn't been around.
Woods tied for fourth in the season-opening Mercedes Championships, then took the next four weeks off.
Then again, Woods tends to play his best after long layoffs.
He won two of his first three starts last year, including a dominant victory at the Match Play Championship. While Singh is always itching to play, Woods is careful not to overload tournament golf into his schedule.
'I could not do what Vijay does - hit that many golf balls after every tournament round, play as many tournaments as he does,' Woods said. 'He's able to maintain that high for a long period of time. If I did that, I would break down, because I would start losing my focus.'
Woods doesn't have to adjust his eyes to see who's coming at him. Singh is at the top of the list, although Mickelson and Els - the usual cast of characters - are all right there.
How he handles it will unfold over the rest of the California swing.
'With regards to Tiger, he'll come out and keep doing what he's doing,' Darren Clarke said. 'I don't think it will affect him in the slightest.'
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