The record indicates that Tiger Woods is having a big year.

He already has won three times, including the Masters for his first major since 2002, and he has finished in the top three in seven of his 13 starts on the PGA Tour. He has returned to No. 1 in the world. And when Woods says his game is coming together, no one rolls his eyes.

Still, this is a year in which nothing is what it seems.

The lasting image of Woods is not of him slipping on a green jacket at Augusta National for the fourth time, but making a mess of the final two holes at the Masters and having to sweat out a sudden-death playoff. True, he has given himself a chance to win just about every other time he has played, but he also missed a cut for the first time in seven years.

And while he nearly staged dramatic comebacks from a six-shot deficit at the U.S. Open and a five-shot deficit at the Western Open, his rallies ended with errors he rarely makes.

“I guess that’s the one negative of being the best. Everyone expects you to be perfect,” Jim Furyk said after ignoring Woods’ charge and winning the Western Open. “If he makes a mistake, it sticks out more than anything else. People pay notice to it. People will mention it to him. He has to relive those moments a little bit more critically than everyone else because the spotlight is on him.

“He’s human. But sometimes, it doesn’t seem that way.”

Woods is not alone.

With so many players poised to do so many great things, the spotlight on the first half of the year seems to shine as much on their shortcomings as anything they have achieved.

Six months ago, the stars were aligned for a blockbuster season. Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson have done their part, each winning three times. In fact, 15 of the 27 tournaments have been won by players ranked in the top 10.

But heading into the British Open, the “Big Five” is more like the “Big Two.”

Ernie Els has won in faraway lands – twice in the Middle East, once in China – but the Big Easy has had a tough time on the PGA Tour. He squandered two great chances to win at the start of the year in Hawaii, and his only decent opportunity since then was at Congressional. He shot 72 in the final round of the Booz Allen to finish five shots back.

Whether he can turn it around remains to be seen, although history is not on his side.

Els is coming off a devastating year in the majors – a playoff loss in the British Open to journeyman Todd Hamilton; a bogey on the 18th hole that cost him a spot in the playoff at the PGA Championship; a great round that went unrewarded when Mickelson beat him at the Masters, and an 80 from the final group at the U.S. Open.

The last time he felt so empty was when he was runner-up in the first three majors of 2000. He went through the motions in 2001, failing to win on the PGA Tour for the only time in his career.

Retief Goosen also has laid an egg.

He was a forgotten figure at the start of the year, only making news when he didn’t play. Goosen overslept and missed his pro-am time by 10 minutes at Riviera, making him ineligible to tee off in the Nissan Open. Then, it looked like he slept through the final round of the U.S. Open.

Described as unflappable and nearly unbeatable, Goosen lost a three-shot lead in three holes at Pinehurst No. 2 and wound up with an 81. Turns out he was unflappable in defeat, taking in stride the worst final-round score by a 54-hole leader at the U.S. Open since Gil Morgan shot 81 in the final round at Pebble Beach in 1992.

“Everybody else seems to be more worried about it than I am,” Goosen said last week. “It was a disappointing day, but nothing like that is going to bother me.”

Despite three trophies, Mickelson hardly could be considered a threat to No. 1.

None of his victories this year came against more than one other member of the “Big Five” – Singh was at Phoenix and Pebble Beach, Goosen was at the rain-shortened BellSouth Classic. Lefty gets high grades for the best round of the year – not his 60 in the FBR Open, but his 10-under 62 at tough Spyglass Hill that sent him to a wire-to-wire victory at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

He was so hot in February that he was atop the leaderboard for 10 consecutive rounds of stroke play going into the last day at Doral. Mickelson practically begged for Woods’ best game on the Blue Monster and got every bit of it, losing by one shot in the only head-to-head battle by any two members of the Big Five.

But he hasn’t been the same since.

Mickelson won in Atlanta, but only because Jose Maria Olazabal twice missed 5-foot putts on the 18th hole. His preparations for the majors are just as calculating, but the game hasn’t been there, and his only tussle on the weekend has been over spike marks.

Singh has top 10s in both majors, although he was an afterthought in the Masters and U.S. Open. He still leads the PGA Tour money list, but that’s more a product of playing 20 times – seven more tournaments than Woods.

Woods and Singh have swapped spots atop the world ranking six times this year, and No. 1 could continue to be a revolving door through the end of the year.

But for all the talk of a “Big Five,” the first half of the year has narrowed it down to two.

AP-ES-07-05-05 1705EDT

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