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Singh-Woods, with meaning

This time, the drama is real, not manufactured. The talk is about more than a big-money bonus pool or if Tiger Woods can simply add another trophy to his mantle. The Tour Championship has meaning, and for that we have Vijay Singh to thank.

When the $6-million season-ending event begins today in Houston, Woods and Singh will be paired in the final group, the start of a showdown that has been a long time coming in golf.

Almost since Woods emerged as a force, the last official event for the top 30 money winners has been rendered more exhibition than competition. In five of the past six years, Woods had the money title secured long before this point. The player of the year award was all but engraved too.

But to win the 2003 money title, Woods needs to win the Tour Championship and its $1,080,000 top prize while hoping Singh finishes worse than a tie for third.

And should Singh defend his title at the event, then a very interesting debate will ensue about player of the year.

At age 40, Singh is playing the best golf of his life, winning four times this year and contending nearly every week since a runner-up finish in July at the British Open. While most figured a challenger to Woods would come from a youngster, it is a veteran who is giving Woods fits.

"He raised the bar for everybody a few years ago," Singh said. "I think I have been working hard physically on my golf game, so it's just now coming together. I don't think it's Tiger doing this, I think everybody's game has risen to the next level and I just kind of rose with it. I'm playing better than I have before. It's easier to go out there and hit the ball and it feels good and I'm enjoying playing the game of golf."

Adding to the intrigue is the fact Woods and Singh are far from buddies.

Whether it was overreaction or a means of motivation, Woods did not like it three years ago when paired with Singh during a singles match on the final day of the Presidents Cup. Singh's caddie at the time, Paul Tesori, had the words "Tiger Who?" stitched into the back of his cap. It was meant in fun, but Woods didn't take it that way, playing the match as if it were life and death though his 2-and-1 victory ultimately had no bearing on the competition.

Woods also was not pleased to hear Singh's comments earlier this year about Annika Sorenstam and her participation in the Colonial. Woods and Sorenstam are friends, represented by the same agent at IMG. Just more motivation for Woods.

Give Singh credit, however. He has recognized this rare opportunity and is trying to seize it. Although he will have played nine more events than Woods, he has made it his mission to win the money title. He took a blow last month when paired with Woods in the final round of the American Express Championship, unable to overtake the world's No. 1 player.

But he bounced back to win the Funai Classic at Disney World, where Woods tied for second. Then he added another second at the Chrysler Championship, giving himself a $768,494 lead.

"He's played solidly ever since 1998 when he won at Sahalee," Woods said, referring to Singh's PGA Championship victory. "He's been very consistent, we all know that. He works very hard. I think this year has been one of his best putting years. He generally hits the ball solid day in and day out. For him it's just a matter of making a few putts and this year he has been."

Woods has let it be known he doesn't think much of a money title won with such a disparity in number of events. But it was his choice to play less. And you can't blame Singh for trying. Should he win, he'll match his five victories and the money title against Woods' five wins and the Vardon Trophy for low scoring average.

Some have suggested this has been a down year for Woods, and indeed, he did not win a major championship. But he captured two World Golf Championship events and has won five times for the fifth straight season. Consider that in the past 20 years, Nick Price is the only other to win as many as five times in a season.

Perhaps Singh, who has risen to No. 2 in the world, sees this as a one-time chance to dethrone Woods. Or maybe not.

"It's going to be really hard to get Tiger from the No. 1 spot (in the world ranking)," Singh said. "He's playing so well every week. I just have to match and play better than that in the next few years."

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