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A Close Vote A Wide Gap

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The voting for PGA Tour player of the year was close.
The gap between Tiger Woods and everyone else is not.
Not yet, anyway.
'We got closer,' Kenny Perry said Tuesday. 'But I don't think the gap is closing.'
Woods has been in a different league, and judged by higher standards, ever since he took his game to another stratosphere during a 21-month stretch that ended with his victory in the 2001 Masters for an unprecedented sweep of the four majors.
He won 50 percent of his PGA Tour events during that time (17-of-34), an astounding rate of success.
Since then, rivals have come and gone. Awards have become routine.
This year was different.
Not only did Woods fail to win a major or the PGA Tour money title for the first time since 1998, he didn't know if his name was going to be on the Jack Nicklaus Trophy as the tour's player of the year until all the votes were counted.
That might be the best indicator yet that the gap is closing.
But the real measure is whether Vijay Singh, Davis Love III, Ernie Els, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk or Kenny Perry - six guys who also had big years - can do it again in 2004.
History is not on their side.
From the time Woods turned pro, only one other player has been able to sustain a high level of play for more than one season. David Duval won 11 of 34 tournaments from October 1997 through March 1999, culminating with him replacing Woods as No. 1 in the world ranking.
Phil Mickelson has had great seasons, such as his four victories in 2000, but he's gone without a victory twice in the last five years.
Love won four times this year, including The Players Championship. He won only once the previous four years.
Els, the most consistent rival to Woods, won seven times around the world this year. Still, it was only two years ago that the Big Easy failed to win and started to question his desire and focus.
'It validates their career more by doing it year in and year out,' Woods said. 'Look at all the great players. They've done it more than just one year. To have a rivalry, or a conglomerate of guys, you have to do it consistently. Some guys have done it for decades.'
He proceeded to tick off some of the greatest players in golf - Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Sam Snead, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo.
'These guys are consistent for about 10 years at a high level,' he said.
There is no denying Singh had a phenomenal year, easily his best.
The big Fijian has been a world-class player since his first major in the 1998 PGA Championship, and he affirmed that status by winning the Masters two years later.
Still, he's never been a consideration for player of the year until now.
Maybe all the hard work grooving his swing has paid off to the point that Singh will be a common name on the leaderboard for the next several years, just like Woods.
Only then will the gap close.
Woods believes that could be the case, that Singh will play just as well if not better when the season starts next month in Hawaii.
'Without a doubt,' Woods said. 'He's only going to continue to work on it in the offseason. He'll be ready next year.'
Singh is 40, although age is not a factor yet. He's in such good shape that Singh figures to have at least five more years of prime play.
'We'll see what happens next year,' Perry said. 'Will this motivate Tiger? I'm anxious to see how he plays. I'm anxious to see what Davis does, what Vijay does, and Jim Furyk and Mike Weir. What will these guys do with their success?
'Will they rest on it? Does it make them refocused, and rededicated?'
Perry won three out of four tournaments in the middle of the year - the exception was a tie for third in the U.S. Open - and went one stretch with eight consecutive finishes in the top 10. Woods has never done that.
'I don't know how long I can keep playing well,' Perry said. 'You want to be competitive every week you play. For some reason, I held it together longer this year than all the other 17 years I've been out here. I never could put my finger on it.'
That superb stretch of golf made Perry realize one thing.
'It's not easy being that good each week,' he said.
And that gave him a higher appreciation of Woods.
Woods has gone through periods of mediocre play, but they last weeks, not years.
'You ride those highs as long as you can,' Woods said. 'And you get through those lulls as quickly as you can.'
Some have suggested that Woods has gone through mini-slumps because he's gone eight tournaments without winning, or an entire season without winning a major.
But the hard facts about this year speak volumes about the gap: Woods' least productive season in five years was still better than anyone else's.
And his great seasons are why the gap got to be so huge in the first place.