Full Court Press


No Woods, but Mercedes
still worth watching

The most recognizable name in golf is missing from one of the more unrecognizable fields for a Mercedes Championships.

That's what happens when Tiger Woods is forced off the fairway with a knee injury and there are 18 first-time winners from a year ago. The two together take something away from the $5 million opening act of the 2003 PGA Tour.

Knowledgeable golf fans will still enjoy hiking the Plantation Course for this week's winners-only tournament on Maui. They know several stars of tomorrow were born in 2002. But for the casual follower of the sport, Woods not being in the house won't go unnoticed.

Neither will Phil Mickelson's absence. Last year, Mickelson missed the Mercedes because his wife, Amy, was expecting. Their third child is due in March, keeping the world's second-ranked player home for most of the winter and early spring.

Also missing from the scene are 1999 Mercedes winner and course record-holder David Duval, as well as David Toms, who lost in sudden death to defending Mercedes champion Sergio Garcia. Neither won last year, leaving local fans scrambling through the starting times for names they know.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. For the tour to survive and even thrive, new names need to dot the nation's leaderboards. Woods could stand a young American rival, much like what Garcia presents on the world stage.

Playing Plantation for the first time, Garcia issued a challenge to Woods that the American couldn't answer. He attacked the Ben Crenshaw layout well enough to beat Toms on the first playoff hole.

Garcia celebrated his 21st birthday in Honolulu, hinting he would love to finish first on the PGA and European tours. It didn't happen. Garcia went on to have a solid season, finishing 12th on the PGA money list, but was unable to match Woods in the majors.

Now, the Spaniard returns to the islands with not only Woods and Mickelson out of the way, but with half the field playing in the Mercedes for the first time. He has to like those odds.

MORE THAN LIKELY, Garcias main competition this week will come from his fellow foreigners. Chief among them is South African Ernie Els. The British Open winner lost in a playoff to Woods in the 2000 Mercedes and would like nothing better than to get off to a fast start this week.

Both have countrymen vying for the title. Garcia has fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal to contend with, while Els has to face South Africans Nick Price and Retief Goosen. Granted, many marquee Americans won't be here to contend for the million-dollar first prize, but the foreign field is well represented, including Vijay Singh.

Singh, who turns 40 this year, won twice in 2002 and finished third on the money list to Woods and Mickelson. How that translates to ticket sales on West Maui and national television ratings on ESPN remains to be seen. But there is still enough intrigue to make the season-opening event worth seeing in person or watching on TV.

Paul Arnett has been covering sports
for the Star-Bulletin since 1990.
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