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Top players looking for fast start to 2004

The 2004 PGA Tour opens this week with the Mercedes Championships on Thursday and each of the 30 players who qualified for the event will be hoping to make a positive start to the year.

But the two players looking to impose themselves on the new season more than most are world number one Tiger Woods and number three Ernie Els, the defending champion.

The 2003 season was a letdown of sorts for both players, with neither Woods nor Els winning a major championship.

A surprising statistic, since both players had successful starts to last season.

Els was particularly strong in January, winning this event before going on to complete the Hawaiian double a week later by taking the Sony Open in a playoff over Australia's Aaron Baddeley.

Woods missed last year's Mercedes and did not play until his debut on the West Coast at the Buick Invitational in mid-February where he showed no lingering effects of his December knee surgery, winning by four strokes.

While Els would not win again on the PGA Tour, Woods did pick up four more victories, but for first time since 1998, the world number one did not capture a major. "I'm excited about the things I was working on towards the end of last year," Woods said after his final warm-up before Thursday's first round.

"I showed some good signs in my practice sessions leading up to this week. So I'm pretty excited about it," he added.

Despite winning his first event last year, Woods was apprehensive of his knee, which put his game at risk.

Brilliant flashes of play were offset by bouts of poor performances, which included the necessity to make par on the 36th hole at the Masters just to make the cut.

"Physically I didn't know where I was last year," Woods said.

"I had only started hitting with the driver about three days prior to the tournament (Buick Invitational). So I had no clue what was going on with my game.

"The only thing I knew was my short game was pretty good, because I spent a lot of time at that.

"This year I got a chance to work on my entire game ... on every aspect of it, so there's no apprehension in that regard," he added.

For Els, the first two weeks of last year's PGA Tour were his highlights, although he did win five more times around the world.

His showings in the majors were sketchy, however, and even though he managed three top-10 finishes, he never really had a chance to win.

The South African comes into this event on the back of a five-week break and with a fresh attitude.

"I have good memories obviously (of this event) ... a perfect start last year, 31-under-par," Els said of his record-setting performance.

Els and Woods are also aware that the 2004 PGA Tour is likely to produce a number of surprises.

Especially if last year is anything to go by, with four first-time major winners and numerous 40-year-olds making their mark.

Fiji's Vijay Singh and Davis Love III also rose in prominence, picking up four tour wins apiece.

However, the discussion going into this season continues to focus on Woods and Els.

"I think Tiger is still the number one player in the world," Els said after his practice round on Tuesday.

"He still brings all the credentials to each event. He's the guy."

While some perceive the gap between Woods and the rest of the tour to be shrinking, the player sees it differently.

"I look at it this way," he said.

"If I'm playing well, I like to take my chances against anybody," Woods said.

"That's the way I've always felt when I've played well."

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