Can new rivalries put golf on an upswing?

Let's see if we've got this straight: Tiger and Phil dislike one another, nobody likes Vijay, and everybody likes Ernie.

If those names and attendant soap operas cause bafflement, you must lack a bunker mentality. For golf fans, the searing rivalries among Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, and Ernie Els will come into sharp relief this week at Augusta National Golf Club, where the 69th Masters tees off Thursday.

The golf world is staking a lot on these newfound rivalries, which have morphed into a compelling story line during the past year. If the Big Four can sustain the enthusiasm around the PGA Tour, it could help reverse a 25 percent dip in TV ratings since 2001.

The Masters, known for its jaw-dropping dogwoods and gushing azaleas, as well as an organizing committee obsessed with traditions, provides the biggest stage yet for the unfolding rivalry. The event also heralds the start of golf's major championship season. (The three other majors are the US Open, British Open, and the PGA Championship.)

As recently as 2002, Woods, a three-time Masters winner, was considered almost unbeatable and experts suggested no one could offer the young superstar legitimate competition. In 1997, at age 21, Woods became the youngest Masters champion in history and set a tournament record with a gaudy 12-shot victory margin.

And now? He's fighting to recapture his former glory. Despite two tournament wins this season, Woods has failed to win any of the last 10 major championships - an unthinkable drought by his lofty standards. Singh, who won an incredible nine PGA Tour events in 2004, now holds the No. 1 ranking, which once seemed Woods's birthright.

As for Mickelson, he has won three tournaments this year, including the BellSouth Classic on Monday. Mickelson captured his first major championship, after a dozen years of futility, at last year's Masters, where he birdied five of the last seven holes, including the dramatic clincher, an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd and final hole of play.

The victim of Mickelson's clutch putt was none other than Els, the lone Big Four member without a coveted green jacket, the award bestowed upon all Masters champions. Els's résumé includes two US Open titles and a British Open crown.

"I like Ernie Els [to win] right off the bat," says Lanny Wadkins, who played in the Masters for two decades and now serves as lead golf analyst on CBS. "His game seems to be hitting on all cylinders. If he drives it straight, I think he's going to be a force."

The laid-back Els is a favorite with both players and fans, something none of the other top guns can boast. Singh, the 2000 Masters champ, has backers in the locker room, but his chilly, caustic demeanor does little to curry public favor. The ebullient, what-me-worry Mickelson is a gallery favorite, but at least a portion of his competitors consider him a press-happy phony. Woods, a vicious complainer and competitor alike, is thought to be aloof by many fellow players, though he retains rock-star status among golf fans.

Such divergent personalities - and playing styles - delight the fans. Can Singh's putter hold up this week? Will Els overcome the demons of last year's last-hole loss? And can Mickelson and Woods control past and present tendencies, respectively, to rescue themselves from stray shots time and again?

"Every sport needs rivalries," says John Feinstein, a best-selling golf writer. "Not just stars, but rivalries. What you have now with these four guys are genuine rivalries. Start with Tiger and Phil, who still don't like each other, no matter how much they claim otherwise."

The big question for the golfing world is whether those matchups can bring back viewers. With the current four-year, $850 million golf TV contract expiring next year, the PGA Tour is negotiating with networks for a new deal. To increase those essential TV dollars, the tour must be able to make the case that golf is again on the upswing.

Those rivalries may be the buzz heading into this week's Masters, but the tournament is, like so many Southern institutions, a spectacle rooted in tradition above all else. For example, while other major sporting events shift TV alliances on a regular basis, this marks the 50th consecutive year CBS will broadcast the Masters.

Augusta National is the most exclusive of clubs, even once turning up its nose at Microsoft baron Bill Gates when he made a public entreaty to be added as a member. (He was later admitted, though club representatives never disclose membership details.)

For the Masters, the club maintains a longstanding policy of keeping everything just so. Unlike other tournaments, the Masters allows no corporate advertising on the course. Organizers also keep concessions affordable, charging just $3.25 for a trademark pimento cheese sandwich, chips, and a Coke. Tickets, long sold out and tightly controlled by members, cost $175 for four days, a paltry sum compared with $600 Super Bowl tickets.

On TV, the gauzy shots and tinkling-piano soundtracks produced by CBS fit the exacting standards of Augusta National pooh-bahs.

This week, the Masters will include TV advertising after a two-year, self-imposed hiatus. In 2003, National Council of Women's Organizations chair Martha Burk demanded that the club include female members, generating a lengthy media swirl.

Augusta National Chairman William "Hootie" Johnson responded to Ms. Burk's attempt to pressure the tournament's advertisers by having the tournament broadcast without commercial interruption to spare corporate backers public embarrassment. Even without those ads, Golf Digest estimated the Masters reaped more than $40 million in revenue last year.

Augusta National has not relented on the membership issue and Burk's small protest in a remote field far removed from the golf club at the 2003 tournament sputtered.

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