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Ernie Els aiming for third Buick Classic title

Ernie Els never considered skipping the Buick Classic to prepare for the U.S. Open, even though it meant playing six straight weeks.

After all, the events during the stretch are favorites for Els, who is seeking his third victory in the tournament that begins Thursday at Westchester Country Club.

``I didn't want to miss out on any of them,'' he said.

The two-time U.S. Open champion began the long run to Shinnecock Hills with a seventh-place tie in the Byron Nelson in Texas. He followed with a fifth-place tie in the Deutsche Bank in Germany, finished seventh in the Volvo PGA in England and won the Memorial last week in Ohio for his second PGA Tour victory of the year.

``It's a good challenge. You just do it,'' Els said. ``I had three weeks off before this long stretch and I'm going to have a nice time off after this.''

While Buick endorser Tiger Woods is taking his usual break the week before a major championship, the tournament has attracted 25 of the top 30 players on the money list -- including two-time winner Vijay Singh, Masters champion Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III and 2001 champion Sergio Garcia.

Mickelson spent last weekend on Long Island preparing for the U.S. Open, the first major championship since his breakthrough Masters victory.

``The preparation I had for Augusta paid off, so I'm trying to incorporate that into this upcoming major,'' Mickelson said Wednesday. ``I flew in last week and spent three days over there learning the course.''

The hilly, tree-lined Westchester course (par-71, 6,751 yards)places a premium on shotmaking -- an ideal tuneup for the U.S. Open.

``It's a wonderful place for us to get ready for a U.S. Open,'' Mickelson said. ``It's very similar to what a U.S. Open test is, with the thick rough, tight fairways, undulating greens, small greens, fallaways. The difference is there will be no wind.''

Els, the 1996 and 1997 Buick Classic winner, moved past Singh -- also a two-time Westchester champion -- for the No. 2 spot in the world rankings behind Woods with his victory Sunday at Muirfield Village.

``I think Vijay and Ernie are certainly playing the best golf of anybody on Tour. Leave the rankings out of it,'' Love said. ``You say, `Who do you like for this horse race this week?' Well, you'd be hard pressed to go past Vijay and Ernie.''

Love, the 1997 PGA Championship winner at nearby Winged Foot, is seeking his first victory of the year after winning a career-high four times last season.

``I've been thinking about my swing on the golf course a little bit too much,'' Love said. ``So the goal for this week and next week is just to get out and play golf. I feel like I'm hitting the ball good enough, putting well enough, doing everything well enough to score, but I'm not scoring.''

Jonathan Kaye won the rainy 2003 tournament for the first of his two PGA Tour titles, beating John Rollins with an eagle on the first playoff hole.

``I'll try and forget last year,'' Kaye said. ``You can't live in the past. You've got to live in the present when you're playing golf.''

He's making his seventh appearance in the event.

``It's my favorite city to come to and it's my favorite course to play,'' Kaye said. ``It's the center of the world. You've got great shows, good entertainment, great food, lots of good people watching, good shopping, great golf courses. What else do you need?''

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