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Strong field heads to Sun City

The galleries, starved of big-time golf in South Africa, will be pushing for compatriots Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Nick Price in South Africa's Sun City Challenge, starting on Thursday.

But a European, Sergio Garcia, won last year's Challenge over the Gary Player Country Club course at Sun City and the young Spaniard, along with Padraig Harrington (Ireland), Colin Montgomerie (Scotland) and Darren Clarke (Northern Ireland) are expected to again make an impact in the 22nd edition of the tournament, which will run until December 1.

Harrington is in superb form, having won the BMW Asian Open in Taiwan on Sunday where he holed a clutch 10-foot par putt at the last hole.

The victory was his second individual success in as many months after he claimed the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland in October.

And "Monty" was magnificent in marshalling the European troops on their way to Ryder Cup glory, before sharing first place with Bernhard Langer in the Volvo Masters a month back and then, two Sundays ago, winning a tournament in Asia.

Garcia is a two-time winner this year and has just moved up to fourth in the world rankings ahead of Goosen.

Last year the 22-year-old used a chip-in birdie at the first extra hole of a sudden-death playoff against Els to lift the Sun City title, denying the South African a hat trick following Els's victories here in 1999 (with a record 25-under-par return of 263) and 2000.

Harrington made his Sun City debut last year, finishing sixth in the 12-man lineup but posting a record 61 in round three.

World No. 3 Els has had a sensational year, winning the British Open, the World Matchplay, the Dubai Desert Classic and Heineken Classic on the European Tour, and the Genuity Championship in America.

Not content to sit back and enjoy all this success, the fired-up South African insists there is "some unfinished business" for him in 2002 -- winning the Sun City Golf Challenge in front of home fans, dubbed "Ernie's Army".

Els loves the thrill of competition, on a great golf course in the tournament that used to be known as the "Million Dollar" until that name became obsolete when the first-place prize was raised to a heady two million dollars in 1999.

"And two million dollars is more than enough inclination to keep your eye on the ball," Els says.

History shows that players taking part in the Challenge for the first time are unlikely to win, as the steamy, sun-baked, bushveld course takes some getting used to.

This would suggest that this year's "rookies", Americans Chris DiMarco and Bob Estes and Australia's Robert Allenby, could struggle in comparison to old-timers here like Els, three-time champion Nick Price of Zimbabwe, and 1996 winner Montgomerie.

The course is one of the longest in championship golf at 7,078 meters and the addition of some new fairway bunkers will put a bigger premium on driving than ever before.

Very little rain in recent months has left the greens firmer and faster than normal.

"The greens are definitely more difficult than last year when they were softer and slower and the guy who wins this week is going to have to putt really well," says tournament director Alastair Roper.

Line-up (including world ranking):

3-Ernie Els (South Africa), 4-Sergio Garcia (Spain), 5-Retief Goosen (South Africa), 8-Padraig Harrington(Ireland), 10-Colin Montgomerie (Scotland), 11-Chris DiMarco (US), 12-Nick Price (Zimbabwe), 13-Jim Furyk (US), 19-Bob Estes (US), 20-Michael Campbell (NZ), 21-Robert Allenby (Australia), 25-Darren Clarke (Northern Ireland).

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