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Players remember Payne Stewart as Tour Championship begins

HOUSTON (AP) _ The memories came back as soon as Ernie Els pulled into the parking lot at Champions Golf Club for the Tour Championship.

Two years ago, a blue ribbon was attached to Payne Stewart's name plate at his parking spot, with flowers piled waist high. Players walked around like zombies, trying to cope with the shocking loss of the U.S. Open champion, who died in a plane crash the Monday of tournament week.

``I remember walking in here and seeing the flowers at Payne's spot,'' Els said. ``I thought about that when I got here. I watched television of that whole episode of Payne's plane, then had to come here. It was a tough week.''

Kenny Perry is the first off Thursday in the season-ending Tour Championship. For most players, the first tee is a sobering reminder of the memorial service for Stewart before the opening round two years ago _ the heavy fog, the lone bagpiper playing ``Amazing Grace,'' the emotional speech by Tom Lehman.

They played 27 holes the first day, then flew to Orlando, Fla., for a memorial service. The tournament resumed with 27 holes Saturday, then concluded with several players wearing the knickers _ and Tiger Woods holding up another piece of crystal.

``It was a tough week in general, tough emotionally and physically,'' Woods said. ``A lot of things transpired very quickly. We all got through it together.''

The Tour Championship returns this year under a different strain _ the uncertainty over the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

The tour is back to business, and has been the past six weeks. Security is tighter, with backpacks no longer allowed on the course and bags subject to search. Woods has a half-dozen local police around him.

``It's probably the most vulnerable sport there is because the gallery is so close to us at all times,'' Woods said. ``That's one of the things that makes our sport unique, which makes it great _ and also makes it a little bit dangerous, as well.''

Some things never change.

While Woods didn't arrive on a roll, he still has won enough tournaments (five) and enough money ($5.5 million) to already have clinched the money title and make PGA Tour player of the year only a matter of counting the votes.

He had four straight rounds in the 60s at Champions to win by four strokes over Davis Love III. It was his third straight victory, and he finished off the year by winning the American Express Championship in Spain.

Woods has had only one top 10 this summer, a victory at Firestone in a World Golf Championship. He admits the consistency that carried him to 13 victories in a span of 20 tournaments is missing.

Still, he is hardly concerned.

``Last time I played, I was halfway decent,'' he said of his tie for 16th at Disney. ``I shot 16 under; wasn't like I was playing terrible that week. I feel like my game is coming around. I'm hitting the ball a little more crisp and making a couple of putts.''

A victory this week would be his sixth on the PGA Tour this year, making him the first player since Ben Hogan in 1946-48 to have three straight seasons with at least six victories.

Others have more at stake.

Vijay Singh has won $3 million this year, good for fourth on the money list, but faces the prospect of his first winless season since 1996.

Els is pressing even more. He has the longest active streak on tour for consecutive seasons with at least one victory, dating to his U.S. Open title in 1994.

``It's quite a streak that would come to an end for me if I don't win,'' Els said. ``It's not the end of the world, but it would be disappointing.''

He never thought it would come down to one tournament.

Els started the season like a man determined to close the gap on Woods, and perhaps even make a run at winning the money title.

He was in position to win the first three tournaments, but lost in the semifinals at the Match Play Championship, threw away a big lead at the Mercedes and couldn't make enough putts to catch Brad Faxon in Honolulu.

He finished fourth, third and third _ and lost whatever momentum he had.

``I could have won all three weeks,'' Els said, ``but instead it's fourth, third, third _ just like I had in 2000. I think I ran into a wall.''

This would be a good week for him to break through it.
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