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Tiger breaks trend, will play before major

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Tiger Woods prefers to take the week off before a major championship. This year, he's making an exception.

Woods will play the Buick Open in Michigan next month, the week before he defends his title in the PGA Championship at Valhalla, outside Louisville, Ky.

That's sure to raise speculation that Woods is contractually obliged to play a certain number of PGA Tour events sponsored by Buick, with whom he signed a $30 million deal at the end of last year.

"It is absolutely not in his contract," his agent, Mark Steinberg, said Tuesday. "If we had a contractual situation, I'm sure Buick would have wanted him in the New York area (Buick Classic in June), and Tiger didn't play there."

Steinberg attributes Woods' decision to play the week before a major to good scheduling. The Buick will be the first of three in a row — the NEC Invitational is after the PGA — followed by seven weeks until The Presidents Cup.

Woods likely will play only once during those weeks.

SORENSTAM STEPS UP: All of a sudden, the LPGA Tour has a race on its hands — and perhaps a rivalry, too.

While Karrie Webb won four of her first five tournaments this year to set off Tiger Woods-like alarms, her last victory was the Nabisco Championship in late March. Since then, Annika Sorenstam has caught her with four victories and trails by about $102,000 on the money list.

Each player has beaten the other in a playoff, and each player has won twice when the other wasn't in the field.

So, who's No. 1?

"Well, Karrie, according to the rankings," Sorenstam said. "But I know inside, I'm pretty good. She's still leading player-of-the-year and the money rankings, but I'm happy the gap is getting smaller. There are a lot of tournaments coming up."

Both are in the JAL Big Apple Classic this week, followed by the U.S. Open and its whopping $1.75 million purse.

RESTLESS FRED: A few months shy of turning 41, easygoing Fred Couples has been shaken by the reality that he hasn't won in two years and probably won't until he starts devoting more time to golf.

"To come out here and beat these guys is not easy. But I've done it for a long time," he said. "So what happens is you just get out there and a year goes by and you don't win and then you say, 'Well, geez, I'll just play and maybe it's going to happen.' And it's not going to just happen."

It used to happen as easily as pushing the buttons on the remote. Couples won 14 times during a 16-year stretch, including the '92 Masters and The Players Championship twice. His last victory was the '98 Memorial, and he really hasn't come close since.

BACK TO ORLANDO: The LPGA Tour can expect a strong start to its 2001 season — a new tournament with a $1 million purse and a return to one of the best courses on tour.

The JCPenney Classic, formerly a mixed team event until the company decided to align itself only with the LPGA Tour, will make its debut Jan. 12-14 at Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Through 28 tournaments, there already have been six multiple winners on the PGA Tour. At this time last year, only three players had won at least twice.