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Singh seeks to stay on top of the world

The serenity of the moment didn't last long for Vijay Singh.

Staring down the lush green fairway into the Pacific Ocean, on a day so clear it looked as if he could hit the island of Molokai on the horizon, Singh's drive instead ballooned into a big slice. He quickly turned and scolded a photographer whose camera went off too early.

Then his trainer and caddie, Joey Diovisalvi, walked over to another photographer and told him, "No pictures."

Maui is a wonderful place to relax, but there's no time for that now.

Singh is on top of the world, but it's getting crowded there. And while the season opening Mercedes Championships at Kapalua offers the most spectacular views on the PGA Tour, a snapshot of the elite in golf also is breathtaking.

A new season has rarely looked this ripe with possibilities.

Singh is the undisputed No. 1 player, coming off a season in which he won nine times, added his third major championship and shattered the PGA Tour record with nearly $11-million.

Tiger Woods and Ernie Els are capable of replacing him quickly if the 41-year-old Fijian can't keep up his amazing pace. Masters champion Phil Mickelson and U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen are poised to make a move, and some believe Sergio Garcia is ready to join the elite.

"This year is going to be exciting," Goosen said. "There will probably be a No. 1 player a few times this year."

It all begins to unfold today when the Mercedes Championships get under way on the Plantation Course at Kapalua with an elite 31-man field comprised of only PGA Tour winners from last year. The only one missing is Mickelson, who elected not to play.

Singh still stands the tallest in the field, an imposing figure with a swing he has grooved from countless hours on the practice range. He won six out of the last eight tournaments he played on tour, and he finished out of the top 10 only once over the final three months.

Along with becoming only the sixth man in PGA Tour history to win at least nine times, Singh ended Woods' five-year reign at No. 1 in the world ranking.

Woods showed up at Kapalua on Monday, the earliest he has ever arrived for the Mercedes because heavy rains near his home in California kept him from practicing.

Woods ended his most troublesome year _ one PGA Tour victory _ by winning the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan and his Target World Challenge in December against a 16-man field. But he found the swing key he had been working on with coach Hank Haney, and expectations are high.

Asked if it was similar to 1999, when he finally figured out his swing changes, Woods said, "No. It's better.

"I just feel that the swing is better," he said. "It's hard to explain. I worked my tail off this past year, and the results I had toward the end of the season made it so exciting."

Tiger Woods is still golf's top draw, but he's coming off a 2004 season in which he had as many weddings as PGA Tour wins. He is part of an elite 31-player field in the season-opening Mercedes Championships.