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DiMarco favourite to win final Buick event

With just two ranking events left on the 2002 U.S. PGA Tour, players looking to win their cards for next season are under increasing pressure to perform at the Buick Challenge starting on Thursday.

The top 125 from the season-ending money list receive full playing rights for next year, while those ranked 125-150 can only expect starts in less lucrative events.

This week's $3.7 million tournament -- along with the Southern Farm Classic from October 28 to November 3 -- represent the last chance for players to avoid returning to the nerve-shredding Tour Qualifying School or a season on the BUY.COM feeder tour.

Also up for grabs are places at the Tour Championship -- the top 30 from the money list receive entry to the $5 million event -- and the final two spots at the season-opening Mercedes Classic, which has a field of the previous year's champions.

The field at Callaway Gardens' Mountain View Course clearly reflects what is at stake.

Twenty-four of the 29 players ranked between 12-40 will be in action, as will 38 of the 50 players between 101-150, desperate to secure their livelihoods for next year.

Defending champion Chris DiMarco, who beat David Duval at the first extra hole in a playoff last year, will start amongst the favourites.

DiMarco is enjoying his most successful season since joining the Tour in 1994 and came close to winning his second title of 2002 when he finished runner up at the Disney Classic last week.

DiMarco won the Phoenix Open in January and has a further five top-10 finishes to his name.

Duval will also be in action. The 2001 British Open champion has struggled with his driver this year but has recently shown signs of a return to form.

After a reasonable Ryder Cup -- where he won 1-1/2 out of three points -- Duval tied for 25th at the Michelob Championship and joint sixth two weeks ago at the Invensys Classic.

However, he is still a lowly 76th on the money list and not even a victory would be good enough to win him a start at the Tour Championship.

American Steve Lowery is also likely to feature.

The 42-year-old from Alabama has not missed a cut since June, notching up second-place finishes at the Greater Milwaukee Open, the International and the Air Canada Championship.

Furthermore, Lowery clearly likes the Callaway Gardens layout, having set a course record 60 during the final round in 1997.

Another player likely to stand out is former champion Fred Funk, who returns to PGA Tour action after a fleeting appearance at the World Match Play Championship in England.

Although Funk lost 3 & 2 to Scot Colin Montgomerie in the first round last week, his recent form has been impressive.

In his last nine events he has amassed four second places and a fourth. Furthermore, he won the Buick Challenge in 1995 and has finished runner-up twice.

One of Funk's main weapons this season has been his accuracy off the tee. He leads the Tour in driving accuracy and if the wind picks up at Callaway Gardens, as it did last year, his straight hitting could prove crucial.

Likely to be leading the overseas challenge is South Korea's Choi Kyung-ju -- a twice winner in 2002 and joint-fifth last week -- and Fiji's Vijay Singh.

Former powerlifter Choi has already broken the $2 million mark in earnings this season and will be looking to build on his impressive 19th place on the rankings in what is only his third year on the U.S. PGA Tour.

Singh, meanwhile, will be hoping to make amends for his semi-final loss to South Africa's Ernie Els in the World Match Play.

The twice major winner struggled with his shoulder last week but if the injury clears up he will be in with a chance of adding to his nine Tour victories.

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