- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Golf has arrived at a four-way stop.

When the 69th Masters begins today, attention will be focused almost exclusively on four men — Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson.

Rarely have the game’s top four players arrived at the season’s first major in such exquisite form. Seldom has the rest of the field been relegated to such outsider status; one major bookmaker gave the other 89 players in the field a mere 4-1 chance of collecting the Sunday spoils.

And rarely has the game provided us with four such disparate personalities. Never have the game’s top protagonists collided at a career crossroads on such equal footing, each with an opportunity to exit the property with a green jacket and unquestioned ownership of the game’s current crown.

“It’s no mistake that those guys are the buzz this week,” Australian Adam Scott said. “There are a few shots that you need to be able to play around here, and those guys have proved time and again that they have them. You don’t ever get a mystery winner at Augusta because of those shots — gutsy second shots to the par-5s, creative wedge play and clutch putting. The winner’s profile doesn’t change around here, and all four of those guys fit it perfectly with their combination of length and touch.”

Among the quartet, Woods is still the oddsmakers’ choice at 5-1. After two full seasons of uninspiring play by his outrageous standards, Woods at 29 finally seems to have found a handle on the swing changes that were supposed to give him more trajectory control.

Woods already has won twice this season (Buick Invitational and Doral), snapping an extended stroke-play victory drought. He’s added 15 yards off the tee thanks to a new ball (Nike One Platinum). And he’s likening the last two seasons to his victory doldrums of late 1997 through early 1999, when he struggled with his first set of swing changes as a professional before exploding in epic fashion.

“What’s fun about it is that it’s very similar to how I felt at the beginning of 1999,” said Woods, clearly sensing his ninth major title and fourth green jacket (1997, 2001, 2002). “When it finally kicked in, it went off pretty good for two years. … When I’m playing well, I like my chances.”

Woods’ last several seasons were defined by distractions, from a split with longtime swing coach Butch Harmon to his marriage to Swedish supermodel Elin Nordegren. The only distraction these days is the incessant bombardment of questions about Singh, who supplanted him as world No. 1 during last season’s nine-win salvo and has spent this season crowing about his ascension.

Woods and Singh have a longtime rub dating to Singh’s “Tiger who?” antics at the 2000 Presidents Cup. Asked about Singh during his Tuesday press conference, Woods responded tersely, “Hmmm. He’s good.”

Tiger also has a well-known personality conflict with Mickelson, the 34-year-old left-hander who broke an 0-for-46 majors slump at last year’s Masters and boasts a PGA Tour-best three victories this season, including a playoff uprising at last week’s BellSouth Classic.

Their relationship was put under the microscope, and no doubt further strained, at last year’s Ryder Cup, when U.S. captain Hal Sutton imprudently paired the two in both sets of opening-day matches and watched Team Titan finish 0-2.

“I enjoyed it,” said Mickelson of the pairing. “I know that’s not what’s been written, but I think that we have a really good relationship and that there’s respect there.”

If Mickelson’s claim of mutual respect is a stretch, his insinuation of friendship is absolutely delusional.

That said, the tensions among the Fab Four don’t all involve Woods. It’s safe to say that Mickelson isn’t on the Els family mailing list.

Els, 35, still seems shell-shocked to have been the victim of major-less Mickelson last season. Els, who has experienced one near-miss agony after another at Augusta National in rolling up five consecutive top-six finishes, posted a final-round 67 last year only to fall prey to Mickelson’s brilliant back-nine 31. And though his incredulity concerning Mickelson’s suddenly steely constitution has softened in the interim, Els still acts as if he was the victim of grand larceny.

“It’s hard to get your head around it,” said Els. “One moment you think the jacket’s yours, and the next it’s gone. … But the feeling I have here is always special. I just see the golf course in a new light this year, and I’m excited.”

So is the golf-watching world because the next four days are charged with the potential for an epic collision between four personalities most likely to define golf’s current golden age.

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