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Woods elevates game against best

Forget the World Golf Championships were ever created, and no one would dispute the world supremacy of Tiger Woods. At the very worst, he still would have 48 career victories on the PGA Tour and be miles ahead of everyone else.

Woods now has won 15 times against the best players in the world.

Darren Clarke is next with two WGC victories, the 2000 Accenture Match Play Championship and the 2003 NEC Invitational at Firestone, both times beating the world's No. 1 player.

Ernie Els, a three-time major champion, has one world title (Ireland in 2004).

Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh have combined for none.

Never mind the world ranking. Maybe his world titles are the true reflection of the gap between Woods and his alleged competition.

"I don't know how to answer that one," Tiger Woods said Sunday. "All I know is that I just love playing against the best players in the world. That's the fun part because we don't get to do it that often."

But there is a case to be made that beating the best isn't necessarily harder than beating the rest in a full-field event.

Clearly, the Match Play Championship is the toughest of the WGCs to win, and it's a testament to his ability (physical and mental) that Woods has won three times and reached the final another time. Only three other players have been to the finals twice.

But in the first three WGCs he won at Firestone, Woods never had to beat more than 40 players in 72 holes of stroke play. He had to beat only 60 players in his first American Express title at Valderrama.

In his tour career, Woods has won 20 times against limited fields with guaranteed money.

Playing a full field, whether that's 120 players at invitationals like Bay Hill or 156 players in the summer, means more chances that someone will have a career week.

Bob May was one of those guys at Valhalla in 2000 when he lost to Woods in a three-hole playoff at the PGA Championship. Bob Burns was one of those guys at Disney in 2002 when he shot 65 to win. Steve Flesch went Birdie-for-birdie with Woods in the final round of Disney two years earlier, and both were beaten by a 62 from Duffy Waldorf.

There's a lot of truth to the PGA Tour's slogan, "These guys are good."

"If you've got 60 guys at Bridgestone, get by 10 or 12 of them, and the scores tend to look different," Fred Couples said Tuesday. "That's sugarcoating it a little bit."

In most tournaments, only half the field is going to play well, leading to the 70 or so players who make the cut. Apply that math to the WGCs, and there are only 30 or 40 guys to worry about. The average margin between first and worst in the WGC events (stroke play) is 32.4 strokes. The average margin at regular tour events last year was 24.6.

The WGCs are not the only tournaments where the number of players who can win is less than what it seems.

The U.S. Open last year had 29 players who had to go through two stages of qualifying. Those are called dreamers. The 97-man field at the Masters last year had 10 players on the Champions Tour and five amateurs. The PGA Championship has 20 club pros.

The pressure, the history and the golf course are what makes them tough.

But there is no getting around the fact that WGCs use the world ranking (top 50) as the core criteria, and while there forever will be debate on whether Shingo Katayama or Soren Hansen belong in the top 50, there can be no argument that Mickelson, Els, Singh, Padraig Harrington, Steve Stricker and Sergio Garcia are pushovers.

"When it's only 64 guys, it certainly seems easier to win the event," Couples said. "But when it's the top 64 guys, it's harder. Tiger wins them, and it's no surprise."

Firestone has always been a course that appeals to Woods, and his record supports that. He has won six times in 10 appearances and has never finished worse than fifth.

But consider the CA Championship, previously the American Express. Before it moved to Doral, where Woods had won the previous two years as a full PGA Tour event, he won that world title on courses in Atlanta, San Francisco, Spain, Ireland and London. No other PGA Tour player has won a tournament six times on six courses.

It's hard to find a tournament Woods plays that doesn't have the best fields on the strongest courses.

It was only three years ago when he played 21 times on the PGA Tour. Since then, he has dropped the Byron Nelson Championship, where the winning score has been under 270 in 12 of the last 13 tournaments; Disney, where he once shot 263 and tied for third; and Pebble Beach, which along with bumpy greens and six-hour rounds also has a 180-man field, including just about everyone from Q-school.

The weakest field he has beaten over the last two years -- based on points awarded in the world ranking -- was the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston in 2006, the year before it became a playoff event.

His schedule now is more predictable than ever. Of the PGA Tour events he played last year, he has won all of them at least once except the AT&T National, which was held for the first time.

It's not surprising then that Woods has won 24 tournaments on the PGA Tour (multiple times at 15 of them). Singh has won 23 different PGA Tour events, and Mickelson has won at 19 tournaments.

But for Woods, everywhere he plays, everything he does, is geared toward the majors.

Ultimately, that's where the greatest players are measured.



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