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Stellar field kick off 2004 PGA Tour season

Ernie Els may need to set another PGA Tour scoring record if he wants to defend his Mercedes Championships title.

He will face a star-studded field that includes eight of the top 10 players in the world in the winners-only event that begins the 2004 PGA Tour season.

Els shot 67-65-65-64 last year when calm conditions left the par-73 Plantation Course defenseless. Els had four eagles and averaged 323 yards off the tee on the way to his 31-under 261 and an eight-stroke victory over Rocco Mediate and K.J. Choi. Els proceeded to win three of his next five starts on the PGA and European tours to start the 2003 campaign, finishing second by one shot in the other two events.

A title defense will be a tough task, however, as the Big Easy will be facing the likes of Tiger Woods, Davis Love III and Mike Weir instead of J.P. Hayes, Gene Sauers and Bob Burns. Eighteen first-time winners in 2002 produced a 2003 Mercedes field that left viewers needing a scorecard to keep track of the new faces. But a return to form for several of golf's biggest names and a healthy Tiger Woods will mean the Mercedes field is loaded with talent.

The most obvious big name to return to Maui after a one-year hiatus is Woods. The World No. 1 was rehabbing from knee surgery when Els fired out of the gate to capture the first of his seven worldwide victories in 2003.

Woods returned to the Tour in February and collected victories in three of his first four starts on his way to a fifth straight Player of the Year award. Woods will be looking for his third career Mercedes title.

Woods last won at Kapalua in 2000, when he outlasted Els in a memorable playoff duel. Els' and Woods' most recent duel saw both players make long putts in the darkness to force a tie at The Presidents Cup in November.

Not to be overlooked is Els' Presidents Cup teammate Vijay Singh, who is making a return trip to Maui after winning four times and capturing the money title in 2003. Singh will be anxious to prove that his career year was not a fluke. Singh finished tied with Retief Goosen for fourth place in 2003 -- nine strokes behind Els.

Masters champion Mike Weir is back on the islands after missing the 2003 event. Weir won three times in '03, capping his career year with a playoff victory at Augusta to capture his first major.

Another big name soaking in the sun will be Davis Love III. Love was last at Kapalua in 2002, but he qualified for the 2004 event early and often -- winning at Pebble Beach, The Players Championship, The Heritage and The International in 2003. Love is coming off a strong victory in December at the Target World Challenge, when he held off a thundering charge from Woods for the $1.2 million winner's paycheck.

U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk is no stranger to Hawaii, he is making his sixth straight start at the Mercedes Championships -- the only Tour player to play in all six events since it moved to Kapalua. Furyk started the 2001 season with a Mercedes victory, and hasn't finished worse than ninth in his last five starts here.

Forty-somethings captured 15 victories in 2003, led by Singh and Kenny Perry. Perry was the hottest golfer on Tour in mid-summer, capturing three wins in a span of four starts. Perry last played at Kapalua in 2002, when he finished third.

Fred Couples was another of the veterans to find his form in 2003. Couples ended a five-year winless streak when he took home the Shell Houston Open in April.

Craig Stadler, 50, will be playing in two January winners-only events as he qualified for the Champions Tour's MasterCard Championship thanks to three victories on that tour. Familiar names like Peter Jacobsen and Bob Tway also returned to the winner's circle in 2003, so they will battle for their share of the $5.3 million purse.

The field isn't bereft of first-time winners, however. British Open champion Ben Curtis and PGA champion Shaun Micheel headline a group of seven talented Kapalua rookies. Adam Scott and Chad Campbell are two more young guns who hope to build on strong 2003 campaigns. Campbell was the final player to qualify for the Mercedes field, when he rode a third-round 61 to a three-stroke victory at the Tour Championship.

The 30-man field at Kapalua is missing only Padraig Harrington and David Toms from the top 10 in the world rankings. Toms won twice in 2003, but is sidelined after December surgery on his left wrist.

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