Golf: Woods aims to reclaim No 1 status

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The Independent Online
DAVID DUVAL may have overtaken Tiger Woods as the No 1 player in the world but Duval dementia has a long way to go to catch up with Tigermania.

"When I go to the range, things are still the same," Woods said. "The only way David has made my life easier is in not having to do a mandatory press conference every week."

That was not an option this week for the 1997 Masters champion and the first question was how it felt "to be Avis, number two". Having spent more than half his short, 31-month professional career as the world's best player, it is ironic that his first appearance as the No 2 for almost a year should be at the venue where Woods appeared to have turned the sport into a one-man show two years ago.

Woods' 12-stroke victory at Augusta was his fifth of a seven-month pro career. But in the last 18 months, he has won just twice in America to Duval's 11 victories. His win at The Players' Championship two weeks ago meant the world rankings finally reflected what everyone else in golf thought. "I knew the points were going to stack up for David sooner or later," Woods said.

But Woods, 23, was not about to admit the man four years his senior was the best player. "He is playing better," Woods said. "I like my chances. It's all cyclical. Everybody is going to have their run, and I had mine. David's having his, and it's all part of the game. I think it's a good motivation for me that he is playing extremely well, but you can't get caught up in that.

"I have to try to improve my game if I'm No 1 or if I'm missing the cut. And I have been getting better. I've just not been able to get as many wins or play the shots down the stretch."

While Duval was winning his second tournament in a row last week, Woods was at home, away from the attention, and preparing with his usual intensity. In the last two years the winner of Woods's warm-up match against Mark O'Meara at their base in Orlando has also won at Augusta. According to Woods, the match did not happen because O'Meara was unwell.

But according to O'Meara, who last night served up sushi and fajitas at the past champions' dinner, there is more to the story. "We did play 18 holes last Thursday and I clipped him," O'Meara said. "I shot 31 on the back nine and holed a bunker shot at 17. He can't deny that, but I did let him win the money back on the putting green.

"But our real match was going to be on Friday and Tiger was all fired up. He wanted revenge but we didn't have the match we wanted. He birdied the first three holes and then we got to the fourth tee and there were two groups on the hole, so we said: `Forget it'."

O'Meara, better than anyone else, knows what losing the No 1 ranking meant to Woods. "Does it bother him? Probably, yes. He wants to be the man. David wants to be the man. That's good for golf. I think Tiger wants to get that No 1 ranking back."

The so-called attempts to "Tigerproof" Augusta National will have little effect on Woods himself. For instance, moving back the tee at 17 to bring the Eisenhower tree more into play will not bother him. While other will have to go round, he still goes over it. "It is a huge advantage to the longer hitters," O'Meara said.

Woods said he is close to recapturing the width in his backswing he had when winning two years ago. "In 1997, I was able to drive the ball very long, obviously, but I was also able to position the ball on the left or the right of the fairway to attack the pin positions I wanted to and use the slopes as they were designed to be used," he explained.

That win means Woods is one up on Duval where it matters, in majors wins. "It helps knowing you have done it before, you've fended off the best players in the world and won a major. That gives you confidence down the stretch when you are a little nervous, your hands sweating and your eyeballs are beating."

The back nine on Sunday is, Woods said, a darker place than people realise. "I think there's gamesmanship being played every week. Guys pull things the public don't hear or don't see. Sam Snead told me he used to cough on guys' backswings. You know, Seve tends to get a little sore throat every once in a while. It's part of the game."