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Els & Love favourites for The International

Phil Mickelson is in Wisconsin getting ready for the PGA Championship. Tiger Woods is off tuning up for the year's final major, too. So are Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia.

One of the favorite stops on the PGA Tour, The International will have a much weaker field this year after a change in dates put it the week before the PGA. Ernie Els and defending champion Davis Love III are in the field, but they're the only players in the top 12 of the world rankings.

``It obviously hurts the week before a major,'' said Love, who ran away with last year's event after scoring 46 points in the tournament's modified Stableford scoring system.

``You add some guys that are trying to do some things and lose some guys that are trying to rest up. But it's still The International and is still a fun format and a fun event.''

In previous years, The International was played two weeks before the PGA Championship, a perfect time for the top players to get one last tuneup before the final major. There was plenty of incentive to head to Castle Pines Golf Club, with a great golf course, spectacular views and superb amenities for the players and their families.

But tournament organizers asked the PGA Tour in 2002 to switch dates with the Buick Open, in hopes that they could lure more top-name players the week before a major championship. The thinking was that players would enjoy a three-week stretch of playing The International, the PGA and the NEC Invitational in Akron, Ohio.

With the timing, playing in altitude and using a scoring system that's not used the rest of the year, it hasn't worked out quite as they hoped.

Mickelson, the winner of this year's Masters and a two-time International champion, will not play the week before a major for the first time in five years.

Lefty spent extra time at each of the first three major championship courses this year, and said he wants to get familiar with the PGA site: Whistling Straits, a links-style course on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Singh won the Buick Open last week, but opted to rest this week. Garcia is doing the same, as is Woods, who hasn't played in The International since 1998.

U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen was slated to play, but he backed out after injuring his hip last week.

``To tell the truth, I don't know what the best date is,'' tournament founder Jack Vickers said. ``The situation this year, where a couple of players have the opportunity to go to next week's event, is one of those unfortunate situations.

``I don't criticize the guys for going up there, but it doesn't make for the best for the PGA Tour, I don't think.''

It's not as if the tournament will be a walkover for the players who did show up.

British Open champion Todd Hamilton is in the field, as is 2002 PGA champion David Toms and up-and-coming stars Charles Howell III and Chad Campbell.

Major championship winners Justin Leonard, Bernhard Langer, Steve Elkington, David Duval, Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin, Lee Janzen, Rich Beem, Ben Curtis, Mark Brooks and Greg Norman also are in the field.

And with so many first-time winners in recent years, just about any tournament is tough to win.

``This Tour is strong,'' said Els, who won The International in 2000. ``Anybody that's on his game, you take your pick, these guys can all play.''

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