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Garcia looking to defend Sun City title

Ten of the world's top 25 golfers including defending champion Sergio Garcia of Spain tee off here Thursday in pursuit of $2 million, the biggest first prize in golf on offer for winning the Nedbank Golf Challenge.

Garcia, who is ranked ninth in the world rankings, beat South Africa's Retief Goosen in a sudden-death playoff here last year -- sinking a 15-footer at the first extra hole (the par-3 16th) -- to secure his second Nedbank title in three years.

The Spaniard also won the title in 2001 and again it was a playoff. On that occasion he chipped in for birdie, also at the 16th, to defeat Goosen's fellow South African Ernie Els at the first extra hole of a playoff.

"That 16th hole has been very good to me -- beating two world-class South Africans there in playoffs seems like a good omen to me and maybe it'll be kind to me again this year," said Garcia Tuesday.

Els is currently ranked third in the world behind Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods, while U.S. Open champion Goosen is No. 4.

There are three newcomers in the 12-man field this year -- British Open champion Todd Hamilton, fellow American Chad Campbell, and Swede Fredrik Jacobson.

Americans Jim Furyk, Jay Haas and Chris DiMarco, Australian Stuart Appleby, Nick Price of Zimbabwe and England's Lee Westwood -- a late replacement for friend Darren Clarke, whose wife Heather is seriously ill -- complete the field.

In 2002 Garcia was the only player in the world to finish in the top-10 of every major, and despite his success on both sides of the Atlantic, he made the courageous decision to make some important swing changes last season, as well as working to eliminate a curious habit of waggling and grounding the club several times before launching into the swing.

While working on these changes, the Spanish prodigy produced some indifferent performances, and he dropped down the world rankings.

He came to Sun City in 31st place on the rankings list before posting that playoff win over Goosen.

This season however, Garcia -- known here as "El Champion" -- has bounced back to his best, and with a streamlined swing and brimful of confidence he is back inside the world's top 10.

On the 2004 PGA Tour he won the EDS Byron Nelson Championship and the Buick Classic, he was an inspiration for Europe in the Ryder Cup and he also captured the Mallorca Classic at home in Spain.

The Nedbank Golf Challenge is played over the long, punishing Gary Player Country Club course.

Much was made of the fact that Whistling Straits, venue for this year's PGA Championship, was -- at 7590 yards -- the longest course in major championship history.

It was so tough and so long they called it Dire Straits.

But, lengthwise, the Gary Player Country Club course tops Whistling Straits by 242 yards as -- off the tips -- it is now a back-breaking 7832 yards.

"We've also had some good rain early this week which came after a hot, dry spell," said tournament director Alastair Roper.

"We were a bit worried that the rough might not be punishing enough but the rain has done wonders to the course and with the help of fertilizers the kikuyu grass off the fairways will grow extremely quickly and should be quite brutal come the weekend."

While Garcia is trying for his third win in four years, Els will be attempting to capture the title for the fourth time in six years following victories in 1999, when he set a record score of 263, 2000 (when he beat Westwood in a playoff) and 2002.

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