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Mm-hmm ... Golf's rivals are making quite a buzz


AUGUSTA, Ga. - Tiger Woods was taking questions in the Masters media room Tuesday afternoon when a reporter asked him to play word association and said, simply, "Vijay."

So, what instantly came to Woods' mind when he heard the name of the world's top-ranked golfer, Vijay Singh?

"Mm-hmm," Woods said.

The interview moderator raised an eyebrow, looked at Woods and said, "Mm-hmm, that's your only response?"

Stumbling to recover, Woods said, "He's good." Nervous laughter filled the room as the moderator said, "Well, that had potential."

Indeed, for the only thing that beats a hot rivalry between winning teams or superstars is when those teams or superstars "just plain don't like each other," as broadcaster Keith Jackson famously says.

A good event becomes great and a great event becomes spectacular when the athletes are seething over a slight never forgotten, a comment never retracted, a grudge that endures.

It doesn't happen that often. But even if a case of dislike is slightly (or severely) trumped up purely for the sake of attracting attention or increasing television ratings - a common occurrence these days - guys can still get on each other's nerves and raise their games accordingly.

Golf has produced its share of genuine enmity over the years, from Bobby Jones and Chick Evans decades ago to Masters chairman Hootie Johnson and Martha Burk just recently.

And while Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player coexisted while shooting it out for major titles in the 1960s and 1970s, don't think they didn't royally annoy one another now and then.

The latter seems like an appropriate parallel to the climate among golf's so-called "Big Four" today as they begin the Masters at Augusta National. Woods, Singh, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els are anywhere from distantly cordial to, well, "mm-hmm."

It's newsworthy because they're all on top of their games, or nearly, battering scoreboards worldwide with under-par marks. They have 15 major titles and almost 200 titles in all among them, leaving historians struggling to recall when so many top golfers were simultaneously playing so well.

"It's great for golf," Singh said, "and just a thrill for us to be in this situation. I'm just fortunate that I'm part of this big scenario that's going on."

There is potential for a memorable shootout at Augusta National this weekend, but what lies underneath? Here's the tabloid version: Tiger is lukewarm about Vijay and OK-but-just-OK with Phil. Everyone is fine with Ernie. Phil is noncommittal. Vijay seems to stir the drink.

And as always, what they say in public doesn't necessarily reflect what they really feel.

Each was asked about the others during their pre-Masters interviews. (Actually, Els was spared because he is so easygoing and amiable. The big South African doesn't do grudges.) Things heated up when Mickelson was asked about Woods.

The two have occasionally traded shots in the press, and barely spoke when they were paired as Ryder Cup teammates last year and lost a pair of matches. They also engaged in a riveting duel (that Woods won) at the Ford Championship at Doral earlier this year, trading birdies through a fiery afternoon in which it seemed they mainly wanted to beat the other.

Your take, Phil?

"I think we have a really good relationship and there's respect and we enjoy each other's company," Mickelson said.

Oh. And Tiger?

"I think you guys [reporters] get into it more than we do," he said. "Any time you have a chance to win a tournament, you're going to get fired up."

Believe that if you want. Mickelson and Woods might be outwardly cordial and fellow native southern Californians, but a palpable edge separates them, and a last-round duel between them is the best-case scenario for the 2005 Masters.

Of course, it's hard to imagine any last-round duel not involving Singh, who won here in 2000 and has five top-five finishes in 10 starts on the PGA Tour this year. The relentless Fiji native is almost always around the lead.

He, too, expressed admiration for the others during his interview, appearing less prickly and combative than usual. But he clearly rubs Woods the wrong way and it's easy to guess why.

"I'm here at the Masters, best player in the world right now, and ready to go win another one," he said early in his interview, then later added, "I love being No. 1, there's no hiding that."

The sound you heard was steam escaping from the ears of Woods, who was ranked No. 1 from 1999 to mid-2004.

"When I'm playing well, I like my chances," Woods said.

That's about as close as we're going to get to "just plain don't like each other." We live in careful times. Athletes are schooled to avoid controversy for the sake of their images. "Mm-hmm" is about as combative as it gets.

But sometimes, "mm-hmm" is enough.

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