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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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By BOB HARIG
Published April 3, 2005
The stars will come together again, converging at a place where only one can shine. Whether they align to produce the kind of golf showdown dearly desired at a major championship is, of course, the stuff of dreams. Big dreams.
But everything in the first part of the 2005 golf season points to an epic battle among the Big Four: Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. With apologies to Retief Goosen, that formidable foursome has dominated the golf talk this spring.
And for good reason.
Singh, at age 42, remains the No. 1-ranked player in the world and has won 10 times on the PGA Tour since the start of the 2004 season, and he squandered two recent chances. Woods, ranked No. 2, briefly reclaimed the top spot with two victories this year, including a showdown with Mickelson at Doral, where Singh finished third.
Els, No. 3, has two victories in Europe (one was on the same day as the Woods-Mickelson-Singh finish at Doral) in addition to three top 10s on the PGA Tour. And then there is Mickelson, No. 4, the defending Masters champion who won twice this year before taking Woods to the final hole in an epic battle that had fans hoping for more.
Especially this week.
The 69th Masters begins Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club, where Mickelson broke through to win his first major in dramatic fashion last year, birdieing five of the last seven holes to edge Els by a stroke.
Both would be contenders in the remaining major championships last year, with Goosen taking the U.S. Open and Singh winning in a playoff at the PGA Championship.
Woods was a virtual no-show at the majors last year, running his streak without a major title to 10. But after extensive changes to his swing, he ended 2004 strong and added two victories this year, including the stirring duel with Mickelson, where Woods again appeared to be his dominating self with the driver.
"I live for those moments," Woods said. "That's exactly why you practice, to be in that position and try to handle the situation. That's what you dream about as kids, going against the best.
"It doesn't happen very often because of the nature of our sport, our travel schedules and the fact that you can't always play well each and every week. It's very rare that we separate ourselves and focus on each other in the final group. That doesn't happen very often. So when you do have that opportunity, you'd like to take advantage of it."
It didn't happen last week at the Players Championship, where the Big Four seemed to get washed away in the rainy conditions. None of them finished among the top 10, and Woods had his worst finish in six years, a tie for 53rd.
All of which points out just how difficult it is to have the top golfers playing well at the same time.
"Yeah, it feels a lot different," Mickelson said. "When you're out on the course and you're making a couple of birdies, you feel like you have to keep pushing yourself to go lower because you know that Tiger Woods is in the field and Vijay Singh is coming on strong. ... All of these guys are pushing to shoot lower and lower scores. And when you're out there, you feel it. You've got to go lower."
The Masters marks just the third time this year the Big Four will be in the same tournament.
The first was the Buick Invitational in January, which Woods won. Els tied for sixth, Singh tied for 24th and Mickelson tied for 56th. They met again at the Players Championship.
"It's the year of our big guns taking control," said Fred Funk, who won the Players Championship. "To me, that's the highlight of the year. That's the focus, how well our marquee guys are playing right now. And they've really stepped it up. It's fun to watch, even as a player, to see how well they're playing. And it's exciting for everybody."
"It's stimulating interest, and that's what we need," said Nick Price, a three-time major winner.
"They're fun to watch," said Kenny Perry, who held off Singh two weeks ago at the Bay Hill Invitational. "They don't play for second. They only care about winning. Their rivalry is good for golf. Look at Doral, how much interest they created with the fans."
In a sport that hails its heroes and does not welcome newcomers or underdogs easily, you could not have asked for much more.
"This is going to be a huge year," Els said. "No one seems to be backing off. Tiger and Phil are obviously playing at a high level, as are Vijay and Retief."
"I think we are in a great time in golf," said NBC golf analyst and two-time major winner Johnny Miller. "We've got this new Big Five with Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen. They're all moving upward with their games. It reminds me of the '70s, and that's saying a lot."
This is a different place than the game occupied just a few years ago. Scores of fans were drawn to the game at the height of Tigermania, when Woods won seven of 11 majors between 1999 and 2002 and dominated the game to the point that others often wondered if they were playing for second.
But that has not been the norm throughout golf history. The game has often been blessed with high-profile rivalries that created interest from fans and generated added motivation from players. And these matchups become particularly important at the major championships, the only place where the top players are assured of competing.
Go back in time ... Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen. Then came Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead. Followed by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player. Later, it was Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino. Throw in Miller and Hale Irwin.
"Golf needs that," said Nelson, 93, who 60 years ago won 18 times, including 11 straight. "What these four are doing, it's great for golf. All eras of golf needed outstanding players for people to watch."
Nelson retired shortly after his historic season, leaving Hogan and Snead to battle for another decade. Palmer emerged in the mid 1950s and dominated until Nicklaus and Player hit their stride in the early 1960s. They were known as the Big Three and combined to win 34 major championships. From 1960 to 1966 the Masters was captured by one of the Big Three, and they combined to win 15 of the 28 majors in that period.
But, as Palmer warned, sometimes his duels with Nicklaus were to their detriment.
"We got so intent on beating each other that someone else in the field went right by us," Palmer said. "That happened a couple of times."
Mickelson said there are too many talented players competing for him to simply focus on the other top names.
"If you look at the depth of the next five guys or six guys - Retief, Padraig (Harrington), Sergio (Garcia), Davis Love, Kenny Perry and David Toms - these guys are just amazing players," Mickelson said. "I don't feel it's probably fair to single out four players, with the depth we have in the top 15 or 20 in the world."
Maybe not. But all eyes will be on them at Augusta National - especially if they are atop the leaderboard a week from today.