KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) _ Tiger Woods arrived with only the bottom half of his goatee remaining, changed into golf shoes and was quickly out of sight.
Carts are allowed for the practice rounds at the Mercedes Championships, and about 50 fans had no chance of keeping up with him on the hilly Plantation Course at Kapalua. Taking a shortcut on the back nine and playing only six holes, Woods finished in 40 minutes.
Perhaps that kind of pace will set the tone for a new season.
``It's always important to win early,'' Woods said. ``It's important to play well because it makes you feel better about the season.''
It also eliminates foolish talk about a slump, which is what Woods had to endure last year until winning his first tournament at Bay Hill in March.
A year ago, Woods was coming off one of the greatest years in sports, winning nine PGA Tour events and three straight majors. The question was whether that would become a typical season or an exceptional one.
It looks now to be an exception, although that could change.
``I think it would be very difficult to accomplish that again,'' British Open champion David Duval said. ``But I think he's capable of it.''
Added Shigeki Maruyama: ``He still plays in another world.''
It all starts Thursday along the rugged coastline of west Maui, where 32 PGA Tour winners gather for the season-opening Mercedes Championships.
U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen came halfway around the world from South Africa, meaning all four major champions are in the field. The only two winners who didn't show were Phil Mickelson, who wants to spend time with his family, and Jose Coceres, who broke his arm playing soccer a couple of weeks ago in Argentina.
As for the young, emerging stars who are supposed to be challenging Woods, only two are here _ Sergio Garcia, who seems much older than his 21 years, and David Gossett, the former U.S. Amateur champion who won the John Deere Classic.
And while the gap on Woods appears to have closed, he is still the guy to beat. He had a year that would define careers for most everyone else at Kapalua.
``I guess he stunk, didn't he? Maybe he should think about other career opportunities,'' Duval said mockingly about a season in which Woods won five tour events, including an historic Masters that made him the only player to hold all four major titles at the same time.
``You win five times a year for 20 years, that would be all right, wouldn't it?'' Duval said. ``That's a good position to be in.''
Woods couldn't agree more.
He argues that anyone in the field at Kapalua has had a good year. Golf is all about winning, and that's the only ticket to Maui.
``I won a major championship last year. If I can do that the rest of my career, people can write slump all they want,'' he said.
Despite not winning until his sixth tour event last year, Woods typically starts the year with his game in good shape.
He won the Mercedes two years ago after a 20-hole battle against Ernie Els in the final round, ending on the second playoff hole when Woods holed a 40-foot birdie putt that was downhill, into the grain and had 6 feet of break.
In five previous season-opening tournaments, he has won twice, was runner-up another year and has never fared worse than eighth.
His statistics were down from a year ago, although Woods still led the tour in the only ones that matter _ victories (5), scoring average (68.81) and money ($5.6 million). He said he measures success by improvement, and he's the only one who knows how much.
``It was quite a bit more than people think,'' Woods said. ``My misses were a lot better last year than they were in 2000. But when I got it going, it wasn't quite as good _ not quite as good or as long.''
The Mercedes has been played on Maui every year since 1999, and the spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, of Molokai perched high across the channel looking down from the first tee and breeching humpback whales on the horizon, signal a new season.
It doesn't feel that way to Woods.
His break was the five-week period after the Canadian Open _ part of that induced by Sept. 11. He last played two weeks ago at his Williams World Challenge, which he won with a 30 on the back nine at Sherwood.
Next up is a trip to the New Zealand Open, followed by the California Swing and then onto Florida, all of it building toward the Masters.
His goals are unchanged.
``Same thing I want to do every year,'' he said. ``Win every tournament I play.''