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Master Players, Major Rivalries

Well, nothing like setting the bar in the stratosphere before anybody has even taken the first jump.

With anticipation off the chart, some perspective should be added. Of all the players listed above in the various Big Threes of the past, every man had at least six major championships except Nelson, who had five. In fairly stark contrast, Mickelson (one), Goosen (two), Els (three) and Singh (three) have only one more major title combined than Woods (eight). To their credit, the current group has 201 victories around the world, with a minimum of at least 20 wins each.

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)

Perhaps most important in terms of public image, this was supposed to be the Age of Tiger, yet four players have raised their game to challenge him as soon as he faltered. Singh and Mickelson now clearly feel they can win their fair share of head-to-head battles with Woods. Els and Goosen, so far, have done their best when Tiger wasn't prowling in the same woods.

What we have entered is a period which may prove to be the best in golf history. The conditions are propitious. But the crucial word is "may." We aren't there yet. To surpass the Big Threes of the past, our central protagonists must stay at their current peak levels for several more years and, in particular, continue to dominate the majors.

If they do, golf has a chance to move up in the pecking order of contemporary sports. Since Mickelson improved his physical conditioning, all five of these stars look like big, fit long-belting athletes who simply happen to have chosen golf. Only Goosen is less than 6 feet 2. All look good to great on camera. You couldn't ask for a better mix of nationalities and races.

When other next-tier young stars, all from the same pure-jock mold, such as Adam Scott (Australia), Sergio Garcia (Spain) and Charles Howell III (U.S.), are added to the list, the potential for the game just looks better.

Still, potential is not the same as reality. The truth about golf at this moment is that it wishes that it had a Big Five. But it doesn't yet -- not quite. After all, the current abundance of blessing is less than 365 days old.

But wait just one more year. By then, if '05 comes close to living up its advance billing, golf may truly have fits Fab Five. And the sport may find itself in a splendid place that it has never been before.

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