Woods in a hurry to find winning form

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The Independent Online

Tiger Woods arrived here with only the bottom half of his goatee remaining, changed into golf shoes and was quickly out of sight.

Carts are allowed for the practice rounds at the Mercedes Championships, and about 50 fans had no chance of keeping up with him on the hilly Plantation Course. Taking a short cut on the back nine and playing only six holes, the American world No 1 finished in 40 minutes. Perhaps that kind of pace will set the tone for a new season.

"It's always important to win early," Woods said. "It's important to play well because it makes you feel better about the season." It also eliminates foolish talk about a slump, which is what Woods had to endure last year until winning his first tournament at Bay Hill in March.

A year ago, Woods was coming off one of the greatest years in sport, winning nine PGA Tour events and three straight majors. The question was whether that would become a typical season or an exceptional one. It looks now to be an exception, although that could change.

"I think it would be very difficult to accomplish that again," the Open champion, David Duval, said. "But I think he's capable of it."

Japan's Shigeki Maruyama added: "He still plays in another world." It all starts today along the rugged coastline of west Maui, where 32 PGA Tour winners gather for the season-opening event.

The US Open champion, Retief Goosen, came halfway round the world from South Africa, meaning all four major champions are in the field. The only two winners who did not show were Phil Mickelson, who wants to spend time with his family, and Jose Coceres, who broke his arm playing football a couple of weeks ago in Argentina.

As for the young, emerging men who are supposed to be challenging Woods, only two are here – Sergio Garcia, who seems much older than his 21 years, and David Gossett, the former US Amateur champion who won the John Deere Classic.

While the gap on Woods appears to have closed, he is still the man to beat. He had a year that would define careers for most everyone else at Kapalua. "I guess he stunk, didn't he? Maybe he should think about other career opportunities," Duval said mockingly about a season in which Woods won five tour events, including an historic Masters that made him the only player to hold all four major titles at the same time.

"You win five times a year for 20 years, that would be all right, wouldn't it?" Duval said. "That's a good position to be in." Woods could not agree more.