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2003 Season start off without World No.1

After Gary Planos took a phone call from Mark Steinberg of the International Management Group just before Christmas, the tournament director of the Mercedes Championship knew exactly how the majority of his counterparts on the US Tour feel. Tiger Woods would not be coming to his tournament. The world No 1 misses more events than he plays but Planos can usually be certain of getting his man.

Traditionally the opening event of the American season in the first full week of January, the Mercedes Championship, which starts on Thursday, features only the winners from the previous year's tour. Despite only turning professional late in 1996, Woods wasted no time in qualifying for the tournament in January 1997 and promptly won it. It goes without saying he has managed to qualify, often several times over, each year since and won the title again in 2000 after an epic duel with Ernie Els.

Woods has taken a fancy to such élite, small-field events during his career, which makes the victories of Phil Mickelson (in 1998), David Duval (1999), Jim Furyk (2001) and Sergio Garcia last year particularly worthy. But the American underwent knee surgery in December, so Planos will be without his main draw card at the Hawaiian resort of Kapalua this time.

"You can't find a cloud here on the island today," Planos said, "so I'm having a hard time finding anyone who feels sorry for me. There's no question we'll miss Tiger, but I hope he gets well. We anticipate he'll be back."

Woods, who became the first player for 30 years to win both the Masters and the US Open in the same year, decided to have the operation to remove fluid from his left cruciate ligament after ending his season by being beaten by Padraig Harrington at his own tournament, the Target World Challenge. "I had been playing in pain most of the year," he revealed, "and felt it was time to take care of it."

He has rarely missed tournaments due to injury, although he was bothered by an Achilles tendon problem at the 2001 US Open, where he was trying to win his fifth successive major.

After a period of immobility, Woods spent part of the festive season in Sweden with his girlfriend. Having grown up in California before moving to Florida, he had never seen snow falling before. His likely comeback will be at the Buick Invitational on 13 February. The only assumption that can be made is that it will be business as usual thereafter – a smattering of tour victories and more major success.

Elsewhere on the US Tour it has been anything other than regular fare. To start with, the schedule did not materialise until the end of November – it is usually known a year in advance – after a number of sponsors had to be replaced.

With the likes of WorldCom, Genuity and Invensys out of the equation, there were some large holes to be filled but Ford, Bank of America and Coca-Cola have ensured that prize money will continue to soar. The only event so far without a title sponsor is because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet given approval to a Viagra-type drug.

Two oddities about the 2003 season are that Arnold Palmer is unlikely to extend his record of playing at least one event in 50 consecutive seasons, while Suzy Whaley, a 36-year-old club professional, will become the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event at the Greater Hartford Open in July. Whaley won the Connecticut PGA Section last year, despite playing from shorter tees than her male opponents, and has chosen to take up her qualification.

Back in Hawaii this week, Phil Mickelson will also be missing, as he might be for the Masters, as his wife is expecting their third baby at the end of March. How Mickelson has held on to his world No 2 spot while Els has been collecting titles around the globe, including the Open Championship, is something of a mystery. Els, who signed off with one of his finest-ever performances at Sun City last month, and Garcia will head the cast this week and the challengers to Woods throughout the year.

However, after a record 18 first-time winners on the US Tour last year, a number of the Mercedes field will have to be given the guided tour around Kapalua. They include England's Luke Donald, who won the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in the last week of the season to finish 58th on the money list. That same week, Charles Howell III was finishing runner-up to Vijay Singh at the US Tour Championship to finish ninth on the money list at the age of 23.

While the myriad of first-time winners included some unlikely names such as Kevin Sutherland, Craig Perks, Jerry Kelly and Craig Parry – an experienced winner in Australia and Europe but who waited a decade to win in the States – some are likely to become very familiar. Howell and Donald are two such prospects, but so are the 24-year-olds Matt Kuchar and Jonathan Byrd.

"I think it shows how deep our tour really is now," said Woods, who turned 27 on 30 December. "Anybody who is teeing up in this field can win now. I think that's what we've been saying. But last year finally proved it. A lot of young kids are starting to win, the next generation of players, as well as some older players who are surprise winners. It's great to see that our tour is healthy, with that many good players out here."

Howell grew up in Augusta, Georgia, and learnt his golf at the Augusta Country Club, a neighbour of the famous Augusta National. A disciple of David Leadbetter, he shares a slim physique, the same fashion designer and an eccentric sense of humour with Jesper Parnevik. He was also a contemporary of Donald when the Englishman won his college player of the year award from a number of talented rivals.

"There's a lot of great players our age who just came through," Howell said. "It's just amazing how many great young players there are out here.

"People try to say: "Oh, maybe one guy sees one guy win and he feels like he can do it". I don't think that has anything to do with it at all. I think it goes to show how a class of college and junior golfers came up together. Not only myself, but Jonathan Byrd, David Gossett, Matt Kuchar.

"I don't think there's a class coming up anywhere in the near future as strong as the class we had," Howell added. "And that goes for a lot other guys, like Bryce Molder, who was also there. He's an awesome player and you could almost throw Sergio in there because I played against him in some amateur tournaments, and Aaron Baddeley, who just gained his card.

"Winning a tournament out here gives you a sense of belonging. It's kind of like joining the winner's circle, so to speak. Sergio called and left a message on my phone and said: "Welcome to the club". I had been close to winning a lot but, until I won, I still felt like I had something to prove and I think people still had a few questions unanswered.

"I was Rookie of the Year [in 2001] and whatnot, but that still probably didn't get as much recognition as a win would for me. Mind, I think I need to do it more often to prove some things and answer a lot of questions."


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