Woods#039; No. 1 world ranking could be challenged

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 16, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - Tiger Woods, the second-best player in the world?

The whole notion is rather farfetched. After all, Woods has held the No. 1 spot in the world rankings for an astonishing 253 consecutive weeks, seemingly transforming the honor into a birthright rather than some numbers-crunching exercise.

But going into the U.S. Open, Tiger has Ernie Els right on his tail. The Big Easy moved up to No. 2 with a win at the Memorial, and Vijay Singh isn't far behind, either.

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There's a plausible scenario that would bump Woods from his leading role, which dates to the 1999 PGA Championship. If Els can win at Shinnecock Hills - he's already a two-time Open champion - and Woods finishes lower than sixth, there will be a new name atop the standings.

''The No. 1 position will hopefully take care of itself,'' Els said. ''I don't want to think about that. That's not my total motivation. My motivation is to win golf tournaments.''

Singh, the only three-time winner on the PGA Tour this year, might be playing better than anyone. The Fijian can move to No. 1 by winning the Open, but only if Woods misses the cut. That isn't likely to happen, considering he's made it to the weekend in a record 124 straight events.

''I'm up to No. 2 now,'' Els said. ''But we're all so close.''

The dominant position Woods held while winning seven of 11 majors has certainly faded. No longer does most in the field assume they're playing for second when Woods is on hand. With every wayward tee shot and non-winning finish, the gap narrows.

''The way Vijay has played the last 2 1/2 years speaks for itself,'' Els said. ''And I've played pretty well the last three years myself. Everything is right there, and it's kind of exciting.''

Woods is going on two years since his last major win, the 2002 U.S. Open, held down the road at Bethpage Black.

But rankings or no rankings, he's still The Man.

Just listen to Phil Mickelson, who's feeling pretty good about his game after winning his first major at the Masters.

''I don't know if we've caught him, if the gap has narrowed or not, but I think we all expect him to come out and light it up like he usually does,'' Lefty said. ''I think it's going to happen very, very soon. I just hope we can put it off as long as possible.''

Woods is getting testy about the whole thing. Everywhere he goes, the state of his game comes under scrutiny. This week is no exception.

''Am I tired of it? Yeah,'' Woods said.

His swing has gotten more analysis than most issues in the presidential campaign. Commentators have urged Woods and former instructor Butch Harmon to make peace.

''We laugh on tour about how these guys think they know everything, but they don't,'' Woods said.

Since winning at Bethpage, Woods has gone seven major championships without a victory. He hasn't won a stroke play title since October, and he's blown two 36-hole leads this year.

''I know that I haven't played up to my absolute peak, but who does week in and week out?'' Woods said. ''It certainly is not from a lack of effort, and I know that I'm going to be making some great progress this year.''

Just what is wrong with Woods is easy to see.

His short game remains immaculate, and his irons are usually the right distance.

But on the tee? Watch out.

Woods is 147th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, hitting barely more than half the fairways. And it's not just the driver. In his last tournament, while trying to make a late comeback at the Memorial, he hit a 4-iron off the tee into the water. He's even struggled at times with the 2-iron stinger he likes to use to stay in play.

Then again, some perspective is in order.

Woods still has one win and seven top-10 finishes in 10 tournaments this year, results that anyone who isn't named Tiger Woods would take without a second thought.

''I don't think it's something to worry about,'' Mickelson said. ''I think Tiger will be back like he always is, and he'll win his majors.''

So, golf fans, relish this while you can. It's a wide-open Open instead of Woods versus the Rest of the Field.

Sergio Garcia, possibly the successor to Mickelson as the best player without a major title, is coming off a victory at Westchester last week. Chad Campbell and Padraig Harrington also seemed poised for a major breakthrough. And there are all the familiar names: Davis Love III, David Toms, Mike Weir.

Even David Duval, the last player not named Woods to be ranked No. 1, plans to end his self-imposed exile from the tour this week.

As if sensing Woods' vulnerability, the challengers are coming from all directions.

''There are a lot of guys,'' Mickelson said, ''that are going to try to make this a special year.''