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Thomas Boswell

Master Players, Major Rivalries

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page D05


Before the Masters one year ago, the idea of a Big Five in golf would have been ridiculous. Phil Mickelson, nearing 34, had never won a major championship. Retief Goosen's victory in the 2001 U.S. Open was viewed as a pleasant fluke. Even Vijay Singh, the PGA Tour's top money winner in '03, was often damned with faint praise as a late bloomer who'd soon fade.

Now, all that has changed. Mickelson cashed win, place and show tickets at the '04 Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. As for Goosen, legend maintains that anybody can win the U.S. Open once, but only great players win it twice. So, true or not, he's now a made man with two U.S. Open titles as well as about $6 million in '04 prize money in the U.S. and Europe.

Defending Masters champion Phil Mickelson hits his tee shot on No. 3 during the rain-delayed first round. He's within two shots of the lead. (Kevin Lamarque -- Reuters)

As for Singh, his legacy has been permanently elevated by one of the greatest seasons of the last 50 years -- nine PGA Tour wins, a PGA Championship for his third major crown and a dash past Tiger Woods to be ranked No. 1 in the world at age 42.

Finally, Ernie Els had one of the best secret seasons on record last year. Splitting time on two tours, he was No. 1 in money in Europe and No. 2 on the PGA Tour. Except for Singh, Els might have led both continents in cash as a part-timer on each! In addition, he came second at the Masters by a shot and lost a playoff at the British Open.

To complete the picture, Woods ran his streak of winless majors to 10, firmly establishing his current position in the sport as King in Exile. Until he proves once more that he is the best, which he probably will some day, he isn't. That's how it works.

To say that golf is euphoric about the current two-tiered state of its sport is a gross understatement. This is heaven itself. Normally, when any day at the Masters is shortened by rain, as this first round was abbreviated on Thursday with all of the major stars still on the course, this golf-obsessed town is in a worse funk than a creationist locked in a monkey house.

Not this year. It's much easier to analyze a partial round when only five names matter -- at least in the public mind. Everybody here knows that three of the Big Five have shot themselves into instant contention, all at 2 under par: Singh and Mickelson through 11 holes and Goosen through 13.

On the other hand, Woods and Els are already on the verge of serious trouble. Tiger is 2 over and Els 3 over after 11 holes and 12 holes respectively, with the remainder of the tough front nine still to play. Woods, in particular, seemed rattled, after his 40-foot putt for eagle on the 13th hole sped off the green and into Rae's Creek.

Even after one round Tiger and Ernie don't want to spot Vijay, Retief and Phil four or five shots apiece because at least one of them is likely to keep the pedal to the metal until Sunday dusk. You may pass one or two of them, but all three?

The golf world senses that the sport may be on the verge of a uniquely rich period. Superstars have always fueled the sport. But it's never had quite enough of them. At best, there has been a string of glorious Big Threes.

The 1920s were driven by Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen, followed by Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson from the late '30s and '40s. The '50s and '60s produced the most charismatic trio of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Finally, in the '70s, Nicklaus dueled with Tom Watson and Lee Trevino.

In the last quarter century, there have been individual stars, especially Woods, and head-to-head battles at the top, such as the Nick Faldo-Greg Norman clashes. But never again was there a truly sustained Big Three.

Against this backdrop, the notion of four or five elite stars, all playing in their primes, is enough to cause some well-meaning golf lovers to foam at the mouth. "I am absolutely convinced there have never been five players of this quality all at the top of their games at the same time," golf teacher Dave Pelz told the Augusta Chronicle. "If these guys can [all] get their games near top form . . . we'll have the best year of the majors in the history of the world."

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