Originally created 01/08/98

PGA Tour season starts with renewed intensity



CARLSBAD, Calif. AP) -- The impact of Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour was clearly felt on the eve of the season-opening Mercedes Championships. The competitive challenge he's thrown done has been accepted.

PGA Championship winner Davis Love III said his early season form is ahead of schedule.

British Open champion Justin Leonard has been working on a couple of swing keys.

And even Ernie Els, the U.S. Open titleholder who seems to ease through life with the minimum of exertion, is working out in an exercise program.

Perhaps it's because there is barely an off season anymore, perhaps it's because there is now so much money at stake on the tour, or perhaps it's because Woods raised the competitive bar so high in 1997, but more people seem more ready to play this early in the year than ever before.

"The group of young guys coming up," Love said Wednesday after his final practice round at the La Costa Resort and Spa, "it's going to be tough to stay ahead of them."

Love's eyes narrowed as he spoke of his goals for the new season. He made it clear that he is prepared to put in the work to maintain a competitive edge.

"I want to win more majors," Love said. "I'd like to do it all one year -- the scoring leader, the money title, player of the year. If it means cutting into my free time, if it means less afternoon trips to the cigar store, then I'll do it."

Woods, Els, Leonard, Phil Mickelson, Stewart Cink, Paul Stankowski and Stuart Appleby are the twentysomething guys in the 30-man Mercedes field composed of last year's tournament winners.

And if they have adopted Woods' swaggering attitude that they can play with anyone despite their age, a bunch of the old boys also seem to be going at the game with a renewed enthusiasm that may come from wounded pride as they watched the kids dominate the 1997 season.

Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Nick Price, Tom Lehman, Steve Elkington, Scott Hoch and Mark O'Meara are among the veterans in the Mercedes field as the PGA Tour kicks off a seemingly talent-rich season with Thursday's first round.

It is clearly the kids -- led by Woods -- who have brought a new intensity to the tour, just as they have brought unprecedented fan interest.

"Mickelson, Tiger, myself, Justin, Davis, Tommy Tolles, Furyk -- it's just a huge number of good young golfers," Els said, predicting that the best days are still ahead for the game.

"We haven't really all performed well in a major at the same time yet," Els said. "When that happens, you'll really see a boom time in golf."

Els, who travels around the world after the Mercedes, playing in Australia, Thailand, South Africa and Dubai before rejoining the tour in Florida, said he's worked harder than ever in the off season.

"Believe it or not, I started working out," he said. "I couldn't believe it myself."

Els said his workout program was a direct result of the increased competition on tour.

"To reach my goals, I've got to work on myself a little bit," Els said.

It seems like a lot of players are coming into the new season with that kind of attitude.

The Mercedes Championships, where Woods started his great 1997 with a near hole-in-one to win a playoff with Lehman, this time could be the start of one of the most intensely competitive years ever on the PGA Tour.

Divots: Els said he had no lingering injuries from his snowmobile accident with a pine tree in Vail, Colo., over New Year's weekend. "I don't think I was going quite that fast to kill myself," Els said about the accident in which he barely missed the tree trunk. "The snowmobile went through the branches," he said. "I was kind of left behind." It was his first time on a snowmobile. ... Frank Nobilo, who is here because of his victory at Greensboro last year, has signed a multi-year deal to play Cleveland Golf irons. ... Mike "Fluff" Cowan, Woods' caddie and a big fan of 60s music, was thrilled that Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind" album received a best album Grammy nomination, an award Dylan's 41 previous albums has never won. "Oh, man, do I want him to win that," Cowan said. "That is an incredible album."