Tiger leads clash of titans
Shanghai - Tiger Woods will try to seize back the world number one spot when an enticing HSBC Champions tees off this week in China with a star-studded field battling it out in Asia's biggest tournament.
England's Lee Westwood knocked Woods off golf's pedestal for the first time in five years on Monday, capping the American's fall from grace that began a year ago with revelations of marital infidelities.
But the new world numbers one and two will have their hands full in Shanghai against reigning champion Phil Mickelson and other stars whose presence underlines the tournament's rise as an elite world golf event.
All but two of the world's top-10 players are playing on Thursday, including key European Ryder Cup stars such as PGA Champion Martin Kaymer, US Open winner Graeme McDowell, Paul Casey, Luke Donald, and Rory McIlroy.
But besides vying for the seven-million-dollar purse, Woods, Mickelson and Kaymer all could bring an early end to Westwood's reign and supplant him with a win at the Sheshan International Golf Club.
"It's an exciting time for golf," Westwood, the first European golfer to head the rankings since compatriot Nick Faldo in 1994, told the BBC.
"If anyone can put a run together it's so close they could take the number one spot."
Woods is determined to end his season on a high.
"I've got three more events this year and, hopefully, I can end on a good note," he said on his website.
"I'm really looking forward to these events and, hopefully, they will spearhead into a better 2011."
Virtually any in the top tier are capable of winning in what is being touted as the strongest field in the six-year history of a tournament that in 2009 was elevated to one of the four World Golf Championships.
One of those is veteran South African Ernie Els, who shot a course-record 63 in the final round last year to finish a stroke behind Mickelson.
He is a big fan of the tournament.
"The attention and interest it creates is incredible. It's big for the world of golf and great for the Asian golf fans and the tournament," he said.
Of course, the wide-open nature of golf these days is largely attributed to Woods' fall from dominance, and all eyes will be on whether the superstar can get his game back on track in China, where he is hugely popular.
It was just after last year's HSBC Champions that Woods was involved in a November 2009 car crash outside his Florida home that opened the floodgates to scandalous revelations of extramarital affairs with a string of women.
His decline in form has been just as stunning, hitting a nadir in August when Woods carded the worst 72-hole score of his career at the last World Golf Championship event, the Bridgestone Invitational, finishing 78th out of 80.
But in his last round of golf a month ago, Woods bounced back from a disappointing start at the Ryder Cup with a blistering finale, although it was too late to prevent Europe's victory over the Americans.
"I like where my game is headed. I like the pieces of it and how they're falling into place," he said.
"In particular at the Ryder Cup, and especially in the singles how I played, and that's the way I know I can play the game of golf," added Woods, whose best finish at Shanghai was runner-up in 2005 and 2006.
The Asian contingent is led by 2006 champion Yang Yong-Eun of South Korea, his countrymen K.J. Choi and Noh Seung-Yul -- the current Asian number one -- as well as Asian tour winners Tetsuji Hiratsuka of Japan and Thailand's Pariya Junhasavasdikul.
Other Americans teeing off include PGA Tour winners Anthony Kim, Ryan Palmer and Hunter Mahan, as well as the in-form Ben Crane, who won the CIMB Asia-Pacific Classic in Malaysia on Sunday.