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Original Issue

In the Wings

While most of the world is focused solely on Tiger, a foursome of young pros and a couple of resurgent veterans have quietly emerged as players to be reckoned with as the first major of '08 approaches

THERE ARE two PGA Tours right now, one for Tiger Woods and the other for everybody else. On the Tiger Tour winning is the only thing that matters, and history provides the only competition. On the other Tour the goals are more modest, and players measure success incrementally, whether it's in the agate of the Ryder Cup points list or something more intangible, such as gaining valuable experience or battle-testing a rebuilt swing. Last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill is destined to be remembered for Woods's theatrics in prevailing, but on the margins plenty of other players scored small victories of their own, and these personal triumphs may eventually help bridge the two Tours. ¬∂ No one had a better view of Woods's pyrotechnics than Sean O'Hair, his playing partner in Sunday's final group. O'Hair had been 10 shots off the lead after two rounds but roared into contention with a third-round 63, continuing a torrid streak that began a week earlier when he earned the second victory of his promising career. That came thanks to a nearly flawless final round at the PODS Championship, during which he blew away the likes of Ryuji Imada, Troy Matteson and John Senden, among others. Playing with Woods on Sunday at the House that Arnie Built had an entirely different feel—O'Hair described the atmosphere as "a mini-major." At the start of the round, the 25-year-old O'Hair says, "I was a little nervous, a little unfamiliar with the surroundings." It showed as he made shaky bogeys on the 2nd and 3rd holes. But instead of falling apart completely, O'Hair regrouped and then rallied, birdieing the 11th, 12th and 15th to surge back into contention. He didn't convert some good birdie chances on the closing holes and ultimately tied for third, but O'Hair's composure and his fight didn't go unnoticed.

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger monitored the telecast from his home in Bradenton, Fla. Reached by phone, Zinger was asked if hanging tough alongside Woods might be worth bonus points when, later this year, he makes his four captain's selections. "Absolutely that's the kind of thing I can't get out of my mind," said the captain. "That's the stuff I don't want to forget. There will be a lot of numbers to look at, but it's those performances that tell you so much."

The strong finish at Bay Hill moved O'Hair from 12th to ninth on the U.S. points list. Fellow twentysomething Hunter Mahan, who tied for sixth at Bay Hill, jumped from 16th to 13th. "I played well enough to win," Mahan said. "I simply couldn't get a few putts to fall. But piling up Ryder Cup points is definitely consolation. That's my goal for the year." The same could be said for Nick Watney and Bubba Watson, both of whom were protagonists at Bay Hill.

"There's a new wave of young talent on Tour," says Azinger. "What's exciting is that right now they're talking about the Ryder Cup and thinking about it, and they're still playing well. They're taking on the challenge."

Of course, long before the Cup there is another, more immediate engagement, and it's easy to imagine all these fearless young ball bashers in the mix at the Masters. "It's going to be awesome," says O'Hair, whose power game off the tee is complemented by an imaginative short game. "I can't wait to get there."

Augusta was on everyone's mind last week because, with the Players Championship having been moved to May, Bay Hill is now the key measuring stick on the Florida swing. (This week's World Golf Championship--CA Championship has a strong but limited field—only 77 players—and the Blue Monster at Doral is not considered to be as challenging as Bay Hill.)

What Woods does on Sundays blots out everything that has come before, but among the now-forgotten early-week subplots at Bay Hill was Fred Couples's temporary renaissance. The 48-year-old warrior shared the first-round lead after a stellar 65 and appears ready for one last run at the Masters. He admitted last week to still being haunted by his agonizing near-miss in 2006, when he outplayed Phil Mickelson tee to green in the final pairing but gave away the tournament on the greens. "What happened on 14, you don't really get over it," Couples said of his fatal three-putt that Sunday from close range. "I mean, every time I walked up there last year—four rounds—I didn't even want to go near where that cup was."

Last year his balky back limited Couples to only one tournament in the season's first three months, but upon arriving at Augusta, he was rejuvenated once more, making his 23rd consecutive Masters cut to tie Gary Player's record. A new therapy regimen has allowed Couples to play more in '08, and off the tee he has looked like the Boom Boom of old. Though he faded to 64th at Bay Hill, Couples's cameo on the leader board reminded his competitors of what he's capable of. "When he's healthy, he's always a threat," says Jim Furyk.

Another of last week's overlooked newsmakers is also fighting to extend his competitive window. Vijay Singh, 45, was the story through 36 holes as he led by two strokes. Singh is about seven months into a dramatic swing overhaul, and it remains a work in progress, as his fade on the weekend made apparent. (In fairness Singh was also weakened by the residual effects of having lost 18 pounds the previous week after having "never left the bathroom for four days" following his visit to India for the Johnnie Walker Classic.)

What compels a man to blow up a swing that has already taken him to the Hall of Fame? "I had to do it to get to the next level," Singh says, and he didn't have to spell out to whose level he aspires. Winless since Bay Hill last year, Singh was unhappy with his ball striking for much of '07 as his action had become increasingly flat and laid-off at the top.

Instead of waiting for the off-season to make changes, Singh began his overhaul during the FedEx Cup playoffs, taking the club back more inside the target line and on a more upright plane. This year has seen other changes, with Singh breaking in a new caddie, a new trainer and, as of last week, a new putting stroke. (He went cross-handed with a short putter for the first time since 2004.) With so much of Singh's game in flux, it's hardly surprising that he couldn't hold it together at Bay Hill, but to his credit he kept fighting back. After finishing three strokes behind Woods, Singh was lamenting that it was a tournament that he should have won, but nonetheless he felt he had made further progress. "I'm satisfied with the way I'm hitting it," he said.

Then, in parting, Singh offered the thought that gives hope to the whole of the Tour: "There's always next week."

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It's easy to imagine these fearless ball bashers in the mix in Augusta. "It's going to be awesome," says O'Hair. "I CAN'T WAIT TO GET THERE."



UP TO THE CHALLENGE To win at Bay Hill, Woods had to fight off runs by (from left) O'Hair, Watson, Watney and Mahan.



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OLD FAVORITES Couples's back is better, while Singh (right) is finally seeing benefits from swing changes.



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