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Vijay and the Field

Sometimes in sports the good old days are now, no matter how much we all act like silly romantics talking about yesterday. It happens all the time, and now it is happening in golf, which just a few years ago was supposed to be Tiger Woods against the field, even if you couldn't find much money behind the field.

Suddenly, in what feels like the blink of an eye, the field is Vijay Singh in his prime and Phil Mickelson in his prime with a major, and Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia knocking on the door. And Retief Goosen hanging around with two U.S. Opens. And kids like Adam Scott and Charles Howell III and Luke Donald and . . . well, you get the picture. There hasn't been a time in thirty years when the sport has been this deep and this talented.

It is why this golf year, 2005—which will really start the way all golf years do, at the Masters—has a chance to be the best we've had since the 1970s, the last good old days.

The seventies were when Jack Nicklaus, the greatest of them all, was still the man to beat, and Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf were all eager to try; when Lee Trevino could still have a week and beat everybody. You had Nicklaus and Trevino at Merion in '71 and Trevino chipping in at the British Open in '72 when Jack was still thinking Grand Slam. You had the '75 Masters, one of the greatest shootouts ever, one of the greatest Sundays ever.

We could have a shootout like that at Augusta this year. We could have all the big guys showing up with their best fastballs and giving us a dream leaderboard, one even better than last year's, when Phil held off Ernie after Vijay fell back and it turned out Sergio was too far behind.

"You can look at this year's Masters," Vijay Singh said, "as the beginning of something pretty special."

We were talking at the end of January. Singh, coming off the year of his life, had already had a near miss at the Mercedes Championships and won the Sony Open in Hawaii. Singh paused, then said, "To tell you the truth, I can't wait for the Masters, and I can't wait to see how this year is going to play out. The only way to describe our sport right now is to use a word the kids use: It's 'hot.'"

Once Tiger was the only hot one. Now it seems everybody is hot at the same time. It shouldn't just be a shootout Masters, it should be a shootout year.

Who could have figured a year like 2004 in golf, when the majors would be as memorable as they were without Tiger winning any of them?Who could have figured that Mickelson would face down Els and his own demons at Augusta to win the Masters with the last putt?Or that it would be Mickelson and Goosen toe-to-toe at Shinnecock, or that Vijay would steal the PGA in a playoff and lock up Player of the Year?

Who could have figured a Cinderella man like Todd Hamilton at the British?

"Just look at where we are right now," Vijay said. "Look at the year Phil just had. Ernie is going to be remembered as an all-time great no matter what he does the rest of the way. Tiger is Tiger, a guy who plays the game as well as anybody in history has ever played it, and maybe better. It's why I'm so proud to have beaten all those guys and gotten to number one. To be called the best player in the world at the age of forty-one going on forty-two, well, that makes me feel like I must have been pretty hot, too."

I asked if he was sick of reliving 2004, the kind of year Tiger has had in his prime, even if Vijay won just the one major. This was the year when Vijay Singh's work ethic became something to celebrate in golf, not treat like some kind of punch line. He won nine times, the only player besides Tiger to do that since Snead won eleven in 1950. He won more than $10 million and had eighteen top-ten finishes in twenty-nine starts and missed just one cut and was better than Tiger and better than Mickelson, even in a dream year for Lefty. He was better than everybody.

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