Neither the course, the conditions, nor even the continent seem to matter to Tiger Woods these days as he travels the world and plies his trade better than any other golfer on the planet.

Today, in swirling wind on a difficult Valderrama venue that tamed him considerably at the 1997 Ryder Cup, Woods overcame five bogeys to shoot even-par 71 in the first round of the American Express Championship, his final chance this season to become the first $6 million man in golf history.

An elite field of 62 is competing here, in the last of the three events that make up the inaugural World Golf Championships, for a $5 million purse, with a $1 million champion's check. Woods is four shots off the lead of 67 posted by Vijay Singh. But there's not a golfer on the premises who still doesn't believe Woods is the man to beat.

"You do keep a lookout on what he's doing," Singh said.

Woods, with a record $5.61 million in earnings this season, has other heady goals in mind. He's trying to become the first player to win four straight events since Ben Hogan in 1953. And he's also attempting to match Johnny Miller's eight victories in 1974.

He has won four of his past five and six of his last nine starting with The Memorial in June. Over that span, he has added a second major title, the PGA at Medinah, then came back two weeks later to take the NEC Invitational (the second WGC event) and finished off the tour's U.S. schedule by winning at Disney and the Tour Championship last week in Houston. And, oh yes, there was a significant contribution in the Americans' stirring Ryder Cup triumph over Europe, as well.

Over those nine events, he had two other top 10s, including a tie for third in the U.S. Open and a tie for seventh in the British, had 17 rounds in the 60s and was a cumulative 73 under par over 162 holes. Is it any wonder that his fellow players are mostly in awe of their 23-year-old colleague, who led the tour with a 68.4 scoring average this season?

"It's quite phenomenal," said Scotland's Colin Montgomerie. "And from what we can ascertain as players, I don't think that's going to change very much over the next few years. He seems to be as ambitious as ever and seems to want every title around the world. He's right now the best that we can have for the game. . . . The way he's playing golf, it's quite unbelievable."

Woods tries to play down his success, insisting there is still plenty of room for improvement in his game. He began significantly retooling his swing not long after his 1-3-1 record in the '97 Ryder Cup.

Woods essentially has changed his swing to get a lower trajectory on the ball when he needs it, especially in windy conditions. He said today he always has been a natural high ball hitter, giving him a great advantage playing into hard greens. But he wanted to maintain his huge distance in tough, windy conditions usually encountered at U.S. and British opens and also had to improve his short-iron game.

He has done all of that and become a somewhat more consistent putter as well, although he still sometimes is streaky on the greens. And yet, despite his stunning year, by no means is he fully satisfied with the state of his game, more bad news for players struggling to get within sniffing distance of the lead in any event he enters.

Woods said he found himself hitting shots today he couldn't even dream about two years ago on this hilly, occasionally quirky golf course hard by the Mediterranean, especially because of the blustery conditions.

"My angle of attack is different and a little shallower," he said. "I don't spin the ball up in the air as much, and therefore I can keep the ball flatter, and it stays in the air longer, which means crosswinds. I can hit the ball and bore it through the wind better. I can still hit the ball high at any given time without changing my swing, because that's how I've always played. Other guys who are naturally low-ball hitters have a difficult time getting it in the air, and they feel uncomfortable playing different types of courses because of that."

Today, Woods's long game was very much in evidence, especially at the 535-yard fourth hole, when he hit a driver off the tee and needed only a 5-iron to get home. He had 236 yards from the fairway to the hole, knocked his second shot to 12 feet and made the putt for eagle.

"I wasn't capable of hitting that [5-iron] shot two years ago," Woods said, then laughed and added, "I would have hit it about 250."

Woods played the three par-5 holes in 4 under, birdieing the 547-yard 11th into the teeth of the wind with a driver, another driver off the fairway just short of the green, a chip and 10-foot putt.

"What he's doing is amazing . . . incredible," said Jim Furyk, who shot 68 and was only a shot off Singh's lead. "I don't think players are frustrated by it. It's the kind of game where you don't really root against anyone and just worry about yourself.

"But you'd be blind if you couldn't figure out what he's been doing for the last six months. I've heard some guys actually joking about next year making their schedule wherever he's not playing. I'm just trying to figure out how to play better and beat him. So far, we haven't figured it out."

CAPTION: A seven-time winner, Tiger Woods has a shot to be first since 1974 to win eight tournaments in one season.