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Again, Woods Is the Man to Beat

Golf: He will try to match Hogan's feat of three majors in one year, but Els and a host of others are prepared to stop him.


LOUISVILLE, Ky. — What is green and flat and hotter than a toaster set on burn?

Why, it's the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club out here in rural Kentucky, where if it gets any warmer, they're going to use thermometers for flagsticks to keep track.

Besides the weather, equally warm is golf's Mr. Wonderful, Tiger Woods, who has a chance to make history (again) if he wins the 82nd version of the PGA of America's biggest tournament.

Woods can join Ben Hogan as the only players to win three majors in one year. Last month at the British Open, he became the youngest player to complete a career grand slam. At 24, Woods is two years younger than Jack Nicklaus was when he did it.

There's more. Woods won the Masters in 1997 by a record 12 shots, he won this year's U.S. Open by a record 15 shots, and his 19-under-par total at St. Andrews was yet another record.

What's left at the PGA? Woods can take aim at Steve Elkington's record of 17-under at Riviera in 1995 and become the first to successfully defend his PGA title since Denny Shute in 1937.

Woods says he isn't worried about history, merely trying to win his fifth major title.

"It's like going to the British Open and worrying about completing the Grand Slam," he said. "I think that is just a by-product of winning the tournament. For me, this week, I am going to give it everything I have to put myself in position to hopefully win the tournament. And whatever happens, happens.

"But I am not here trying to duplicate what Hogan did in 1953. That strictly is a by-product of winning the tournament."

Many expect Woods to do just that. The latest odds list Woods as a 7-4 favorite to succeed.

However, Woods isn't going to get it done without some of the stiffest competition he has seen in a major. The tournament field boasts 91 of the top 100 ranked players in the world. This group includes Ernie Els, who has finished second in the other three majors this year and is thus looking to complete the runner-up slam.

Perhaps more than any other player, Woods regards Els as a primary threat.

"I think Ernie has had one of the greatest years in golf for not winning a major," Woods said. "I mean, he has played absolutely wonderful golf.

"It's just that, unfortunately, he has come up second. But he has won two major championships [1994, 1997 U.S. Open]. He has proven that he is a great player, and by finishing close to winning, you learn a lot and I am sure he has learned and he will probably apply it this week."

Probably. Els, who plays the first two rounds of the PGA with Tom Watson and Steve Jones, won two weeks ago at the International. It was Els' first victory since the 1999 Nissan Open.

However, it's not as though Els hasn't come close. In fact, he has five runner-ups this year, four of them to Woods--the Mercedes Championships, the Memorial, the U.S. Open and the British Open.

But whether the challenge comes from Els or Colin Montgomerie, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson or anybody else, that player will be facing Woods at the top of his game.

Woods has won four of his last 15 majors and had real chances to win in four others. His 21 PGA Tour victories are more than any active player. He leads the Official World Ranking by a wider margin (27.27 points to 11.82 for Els) than at any time in history.

Woods plays the first two rounds with five-time PGA champion Nicklaus and 1998 PGA champion Vijay Singh.

It could be Nicklaus' last PGA, but it will be the first time Woods and Nicklaus have played a competitive round together. The pairing will also provide an interesting comparison between the greatest player of his generation and the man who seems destined to replace him.

At least that's what Greg Norman believes.

"Putting them at their prime, player against player at their peak, it would be a tough call," Norman said. "You have got two totally different approaches to the game. I think Jack's head toward the game is far greater than anybody's head has ever been.

"Tiger's driving ability is probably better than Jack's driving ability in their primes. Putting, I would put the nod for Jack on that. Short game and bunker play, I'd give the nod to Tiger.

"I'd say on balance I would give Jack just a nod ahead of Tiger."

But this week, the safe way to play it would be to give the nod to Tiger over anybody. Last week at the Buick, Woods came back from a two-week vacation and tied for 11th. It was his worst finish since he tied for 18th at the Nissan Open in February.

Woods wasn't discouraged.

"This summer has been pretty good to me," he said.

Don't forget, it's still summer.

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