Tiger stalked

PARIS - Tiger Woods is facing a new, youthful wave of challengers for his crown if last month's Masters is anything to go by.

PARIS - Tiger Woods is facing a new, youthful wave of challengers for his crown if last month's Masters is anything to go by.

Just a few years back all the talk was of the Big Five, Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen. That episode now appears to be definitively at an end.

World No. 2 Mickelson has not looked the same player since his final hole meltdown at the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot.

Last year, his wrist gave way and he worked hard with new coach Butch Harmon to improve his swing. He has enjoyed some limited success in that but now his putting, long the backbone of his game, has gone off.

Throw in three children, a thriving course-design business and two, new big-ticket corporate deals to an already charged portfolio, and something had to give.

"His putting has not been as sharp this year because of a lack of attention," said Dave Pelz, Mickelson's short-game coach, at Augusta.

Els has failed to recapture his best form following the knee injury he sustained in a water-skiing accident in July 2005.

He too has asked Woods' former coach Harmon for help, but as his second straight failure to make the cut at the Masters showed, he is a long way from succeeding.

Singh, at 45, is at the end of his prime years, while Goosen has slumped to 28th in the world rankings and looks to have lost the resolve that brought him two US Open titles.

It's two years since one of that foursome has won a major title. What Mickelson, Els, Singh and Goosen also have in common is that they are all older than the 32-year-old Woods and were all active on the professional circuit before he arrived on the scene in 1996. The new breed of challengers coming to the fore are all younger than him and perhaps less impressionable.

Trevor Immelman's breakthrough win in the Masters and the swashbuckling play of young American Brandt Snedeker, who partnered the South African in the Saturday and Sunday final pairings, could be the shape of things to come.

The 2006 and 2007 USPGA Rookies of the Year, at 28 and 27, respectively, have time on their side and plenty of potential and ambition.

Immelman took to golf after being inspired by the exploits of legendary compatriot Gary Player and he has the same dedication, intensity and single-mindedness that were the hallmark of the nine-time major winner. He has made it clear he wants more.

"This is a tremendous confidence boost, and now that I know that I have got one under my belt, I intend to go out there and prepare well for the majors from now on, and just try my best," he told journalists after donning the prized Green Jacket that goes to winners of the Masters.

"I'm not going to sit back and go, okay, that's me, if that's the answer you are looking for. I'm going to keep working hard and trying to make the most of what I've been given."

Snedeker said he went through a golfing education during his final round at Augusta, an experience which left him in tears but which he hopes will stand him in good stead the next time he gets into contention at a major.

"Obviously being in the final pairing two days is something I'm very proud of." - Sapa-AFP