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Inside the Ropes: New breed ready to challenge Woods

The SportsXchange

Tiger Woods knows what it is like to have the best players in the game pursuing him, thanks to spending 665 weeks at No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings during his career.

However, a new posse of young guns are chasing him in 2014.

"It's a whole different generation of guys," said Woods, who again will skip the Hyundai Tournament of Champions this week and plans to open his season in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic later this month. "I've played probably more head-to-head matches against Ernie (Els) than anybody because we played around the world, and Vijay (Singh) would probably be the second and Phil (Mickelson) would probably be third.

"But along the way ... I had Goose (Retief Goosen) in there and (David) Duval in there as well for a number of years. It's a different crop of guys (now). All those guys are in their 40s and 50s, so we got a whole new crew."

And they are from all over the globe.

Adam Scott of Australia and Henrik Stenson of Sweden made strong runs up the rankings late last year. Despite a mostly forgettable 2013, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland showed signs in November and December that he is regaining the form that took him to No. 1 before Woods regained the top spot by winning five times last year.

Mickelson, who surprisingly never was No. 1 in the world, is lurking at No. 5 and was rejuvenated by winning the Open Championship for the first time last July at Muirfield. He will go for the career Grand Slam in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in June.

Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson are the most consistent of the younger Americans in the chasing pack, while Sergio Garcia of Spain jumped back into the top 10 in the rankings by winning the Thailand Open last month.

Former No. 1s Luke Donald of England, Martin Kaymer of Germany and Lee Westwood of England are hanging around outside the top 10 but within striking distance if any of them can put together seasons like Scott and Stenson had last year.

Other contenders are U.S. Open champion Justin Rose of England, who is No. 4 in the world; Jason Day of Australia and perhaps American Jordan Spieth, who might be the game's next big star, rising to No. 22 in a brilliant Rookie of the Year season.

Scott, who became the first Aussie to win the Masters last year, will get the first chance to close in on Woods because he is playing this week in Kapalua. Scott nearly pulled off the Australian Triple Crown late in the year before McIlroy upstaged him on the final hole of Australian Open.

"That's like the wild childhood dream," Scott, who is No. 2, said of possibly passing Woods in the rankings. "For so long, No. 1 was so far from being attainable for me. I sat there and watched Tiger Woods be double the points ahead of the second player in the world. It never really entered my mind, but I've never been closer now."

Neither has No. 3 Stenson, who bounced back after his career was in freefall in 2012, when he plummeted all the way to No. 230 in the rankings.

The 33-year-old Swede jammed what is a good career for most players into the last half of 2013, when he became the first player to win the FedEx Cup race on the PGA Tour and the Race to Dubai on the European Tour.

Stenson capped off both runs with decisive victories, capturing the Tour Championship by three strokes and claiming the DP World Tour Championship-Dubai by six shots.

"Everyone who has won the Race to Dubai has been World No. 1 at some point -- Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy -- so it wouldn't be fair not to try," said Stenson, who began his late-season run by finishing second behind Mickelson in the Open Championship and third in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill.

"It's going to take a lot more good golf, but I am certainly going to keep on trying."

Something similar happened in world golf nine years ago, after Singh, now 50 and almost out of the picture, won nine titles on the PGA Tour in 2004 and took the No. 1 ranking from Woods for a while.

There was talk as the 2005 season started about a Big Four of Woods, Singh, Mickelson and Els perhaps trading the No. 1 ranking all season, with others throwing Goosen into the mix to make it a Big Five.

Singh and Woods did trade the top spot a few times for the first half of the year, but Tiger won six times that year, including the Masters and the Open Championship at St. Andrews, to take a firm grip on the No. 1 ranking. He held it for a record 281 consecutive weeks before Westwood passed him in 2010.

Woods showed last year that he is capable of pulling away again by winning five times, but he turned 38 last week, and there are questions about how much Tiger has left in the tank, or if his body will hold up after a series of injuries in recent years.

Even if does lose the No. 1 spot, he is always pretty good in the chase.
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