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Five Stars Are on a Collision Course

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page D01

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 6 -- Adam Scott missed the cut at the Ford Championship at Doral in Miami last month and, with nothing better to do during the final round Sunday, he plopped into a chair and watched Tiger Woods's duel with Phil Mickelson on TV.

"Now that was great golf to watch," said Scott, a young Australian star. "You're looking at that and you're seeing exactly what you want to be doing. That's how you want to play golf, like those guys did at Doral."

Defending Masters champion Phil Mickelson makes his way down a staircase to the eighth green surrounded by blooming bushes at Augusta. (Gary Hershorn -- Reuters)

"Those guys" have been doing it for a while now and, as the 69th Masters begins Thursday at Augusta National, there may well be a repeat performance of Woods vs. Mickelson.

Or Mickelson vs. Ernie Els.

Or Els vs. Vijay Singh.

Or any combination of those four battling down the stretch Sunday for the season's first major championship.

In recent months, they've been variously described as the "Fab Four" and the "Big Four" -- with the number growing to five with the addition of defending U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen. Each has been playing well, has won a major and could be considered the favorite to win this week.

It makes for a modern golden age for a sport that, over the years, has thrived on rivalries. In the 1920s, there were Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. In the '40s and '50s, there were Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. In the '60s and '70s it was the Big Three -- Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player -- followed by Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson into the 1980s.

Today's fivesome -- including Goosen -- has won 17 majors, and has 201 victories worldwide. Woods is the youngest at 29, Singh the oldest at 42, with the other three in their mid-30s in a sport in which most players peak in their 30s.

"It's a totally different ballgame at the moment, so to speak, with guys playing at a better level than a couple of years ago," Els said this week. "But at the end of the day . . . anybody out there who's playing well and believes in himself can win a golf tournament, and this week is no different."

Mickelson, the PGA Tour's leading money winner, has won three times this year, including a playoff victory Monday in Atlanta. Woods has two PGA Tour victories after a 2004 season in which he did not win a stroke-play event. Els has won twice on the European tour and Singh, with nine victories a year ago, including the PGA Championship, has one title this season and three second-place finishes. This week will mark only the third time in 2005 that all four have been entered in the same tournament.

Woods, still focused on winning the four majors, insisted this week that he pays little attention to Big Four talk.

"I could care less," he said on Tuesday. "I'm just worried about getting my ball in the hole. I'm sure if you did ask those other guys the same thing, we have enough issues out there trying to get the ball in the hole. I'm sure there are more story lines for you guys [in the media]. Hey, I went through a stage when I was good for golf, when I was beating everybody, and then I was bad for golf because I was beating everybody."

Nicklaus, who won the last of his record 18 major titles at the 1986 Masters, said this week he always enjoyed all those Hall of Fame players making a run at his dominance.

"Absolutely, because I knew they could play golf," he said. "I knew when Trevino came along, he could really play. Watson could really play. I knew both of them could keep the ball in play and I knew it didn't make any difference what kind of golf course we were playing on, that they would be there because they figured out how to take their game to that level to do it. I could take my game to that level, too."

Nicklaus also had no qualms about comparing his era to the current one, saying: "The game today, it's good golf by today's standards, not what my standards were. I don't mean that in the way that I played better golf. I always thought hitting the ball straight was part of the game. None of the top guys is in the top 100 in driving accuracy. . . . It's a power game. . . . It's a different game than I played. It's a different game than most anybody in my era played. Maybe I'm an old fuddy-duddy, I suppose. I liked my game better."

Woods's remarkable run from 1999 to 2002, when he dominated the game and at one point won seven of 11 major championships, is often cited as the reason so many players are playing at such a high level. They saw him spend hours in the gym, so hotel workout rooms and the tour's fitness trailer are now filled with golfers.

"Watching those guys raises the games of everybody else," said Denmark's Thomas Bjorn. "When you go back to 2000, 2001, everybody thought that Tiger is so much ahead and it's very difficult to get to that level. But now there's five or six of them playing at that level. Then you say, here are five or six guys playing that consistently, why shouldn't I be able to do it? I think all the players out here feel like we can go to that level.

"It's good fun to watch. It's interesting for the game, healthy for the game. If you look at all of them, it's down to hard work. There's no secret to what they've done, they've just worked hard at their games, and that's how they became that good."

Woods spent most of last season working on subtle swing changes that are starting to kick in this season. Though he has gone 10 straight majors without winning and played poorly last week at The Players Championship, he said he viewed that tie for 53rd as an aberration. He took last week off to prepare for Augusta National, where he has won three of his eight major titles and still holds the scoring record of 18-under 270 and margin of victory mark of 12 shots, both set in 1997 in his first Masters triumph.

"I don't think Tiger has played his best the last year or so," Nicklaus said. "He's still obviously the dominant player. He's got so much talent. . . . I didn't have to play my best to win and Tiger doesn't have to play his best to win. But when he does play his best, he's going to win. But the other guys have all had to bring their game up."

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