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Optimism High with Woods in Range

04 Mercedes ChampionshipsKAPALUA, Hawaii -- Tiger Woods is ready for a new year, only this time he has company.
Brilliant sunshine and a gentle surf along Maui's rugged coastline only adds to the optimism at the Mercedes Championships, a winners-only tournament that kicks off the 2004 season Thursday.
For the first time in five years, several players have every reason to believe they are on the verge of a big year.
It's no longer the Tiger Tour.
'Obviously, Tiger is the best player,' Davis Love III said. 'But now, everybody has their share of something from last year. It got spread around a little bit.'
Woods was the PGA Tour player of the year for the fifth straight time, but he didn't earn the most money. That honor went to Vijay Singh, as credible a challenger as Woods has seen.
Woods led the tour with five victories, but no one piled up more trophies around the world than Ernie Els, whose seven titles included the Mercedes Championships and Sony Open in Hawaii.
The majors?
Mike Weir (Masters) and Jim Furyk (U.S. Open) emerged as stars last year, while Woods was shut out of the Grand Slam events for the first time since 1998.
Suddenly, Woods no longer seems so invincible.
'Things have changed a little bit,' Els said. 'I think the 'Tiger effect' is not as strong as it used to be. I think guys go into a week and feel if they play their games, it might be good enough.'
Is the gap between Woods and everyone else smaller than ever?
'I don't know,' Woods said Wednesday. 'When I'm playing well, I'm tough to beat. If I'm playing well, I like my chances against anybody.'
Last year, the field at Kapalua featured 18 first-time winners. That trend ended quickly, as 2003 belonged mostly to golf's biggest stars.
Woods, Love, Singh, Weir, Furyk, Els, David Toms and Kenny Perry were all multiple winners and combined to win more than half of the PGA Tour events.
With last season not even a distant memory -- wasn't it only yesterday that Woods and Els were trading clutch putts in the Presidents Cup? -- 2004 is poised to be a spectacular season.
Woods is still the guy to beat, but it isn't getting any easier.
He acknowledged as much late Tuesday afternoon after zipping through an 18-hole practice round on the hilly Plantation course at Kapalua in 85 minutes.
'Guys' techniques are better. The field has gotten much deeper,' Woods said. 'The scores you have to shoot to make the cut are pretty impressive.'
Woods missed the Mercedes Championships last year while recovering from knee surgery. Els overpowered a firm, fast course with a record 31 under par to win by eight shots.
Even if Woods had played, it might not have mattered; Els was playing superb golf.
But having Els and Woods in the field only adds to the anticipation. Four years ago, they engaged in an epic duel on the weekend at the Mercedes Championships. It ended with both making eagle on the 18th hole, both making birdie on No. 18 in the playoff, and Woods finally winning with a 40-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole.
Woods went on to one of the greatest seasons ever in golf -- nine victories, three straight majors, a record scoring average and more than $9 million.
Els was so overwhelmed that he said that day, 'I think he's a legend in the making. He's 24. He's probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he gets into his 40s.'
Times have changed.
'Tiger is still Tiger,' Els said. 'The tour is still the tour. We've still got to play golf tournaments. But I think the standard of play on tour the last three years has definitely increased a hell of a lot.'
The top 10 players on the money list all earned at least $3 million last year. Only two of those players -- Perry and rising star Chad Campbell -- have not won a major.
'We're all right there,' Love said. 'There's a big group that's chasing (Woods). He knows it. He likes it that way. He prefers it that way.'
While the tour looks deeper and more balanced than ever at the top, it's still a long way to catch Woods. He is still No. 1 in the world ranking, and likely will break Greg Norman's record -- 331 weeks at No. 1 -- in August.
'People know I can still compete,' said Woods, who turned 28 last week. 'It's not like I've lost my game. I won five golf tournaments and some people said I had a terrible year. If that's my terrible year, I'll take that for the rest of my career.'
The key is for guys who had great years -- seven of them, and that doesn't include British Open champion Ben Curtis or PGA champion Shaun Micheel -- to do what Woods has done since he turned pro in 1996.
Keep winning.
'The main challenge we all face is to be consistent for a long period of time,' Woods said. 'That's hard to do. We saw it from a buddy of mine, David Duval. For 18 months, he was untouchable. We'd all like to play for a good, solid decade at a high level. That's what all the great players have done.'
Perhaps that's the secret for 2004.
It's not how many guys are chasing Woods in January, but how many are still around in November.
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