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Season starts without Woods & Mickelson

No Tiger Woods and no Phil Mickelson. That is how the 2003 PGA Tour season will begin on the shores of Maui at the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua.

But do not cry for the 36 millionaires who are in this week's elite field of PGA Tour winners from last year -- half of them being first- time winners and all playing for a purse of $5 million. The winner takes home a cool $1 million.

With an increase of prize money from just shy of $197 million in 2002 to a whopping $236 million in 2003, the PGA Tour is still hot and flourishing in a difficult economy.

Despite the absence of the top two players in the world ?- No. 1 Woods is rehabbing knee ligaments and No. 2 Mickelson is resting after a heavy late-season stretch -- the level of play will most likely be as compelling as ever.

"Anybody who is playing is the tournament has a chance to win," first- time winner Chris Smith said of the Tiger-less field. "I think that it's pretty clear that the strength and the overall depth of the Tour gets better every year."

While the absence of both players would weaken most fields, the fact that world No. 3 Ernie Els, No. 4 Sergio Garcia, No. 5 Retief Goosen and No. 8 Vijay Singh are in the field minimizes the losses.

At the same time, the depth of the PGA Tour is such that players like 2001 PGA champion David Toms, who is ranked No. 6 in the world, did not win in 2002 and, thus, did not qualify for this winner's only tournament.

"You still have Sergio, Ernie, Retief, Chris DiMarco, Vijay," two- time PGA champion Nick Price said. "The list just shows you the depth of our Tour right now, that you have the top two players not here and there's still going to be a fight out there."

Price's words are supported by the short history the Mercedes has since arriving in Hawaii in 1999. Throwing out the nine-shot runaway win by David Duval in 1999, the Mercedes Championships has always been contested down to the wire.

Twice the title has been decided in a playoff -- in 2000 in an epic battle between Woods and Els and last year when Sergio Garciaheld off Toms to win his third PGA Tour title.

While the first tournament of any year is a focal point, most every player has had time to reflect on their play a year ago and set goals for this year. Though winning is on every player's list of goals, the extent of the goals differ greatly.

Most players are just glad to win on the PGA Tour, but defending champion Garcia expects more of himself. In 2002, Garcia came to Maui hoping to win the money title on both the PGA and European tours.

Garcia's win last year at Mercedes could easily have been the catapult toward fulfilling his money list goal, instead it became the high point of a year filled with disappointments.

"I feel like last year was a pity, I really do," Garcia said of 2002, despite finishing in the top 10 in all four majors. "I really feel like I started the year probably the first six months playing really well. Unfortunately I was putting badly. I was just hitting bad putts. When you get into that mood, it tough to get it going."

This year, Garcia's goals are the same as a year ago -- winning both money titles. But he intends to do that while trimming his schedule.

"Just got to do better in the ones you play," Garcia said. "You have to make a lot of top 10s, win as many as you can."

This week would be step one.


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