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World No.1 spot up for grabs at Bay Hill

Three times last year, Ernie Els went to a major championship with a chance to become No. 1 in the world for the first time since 1998.

His next opportunity starts Thursday at the Bay Hill Invitational.

A tournament that already features the ``Big Three'' for the first time since January is even more intriguing with the No. 1 spot in the world ranking up for grabs among Els, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh.

``One of the goals is to win major championships, but I'd love to be No. 1,'' Els said. ``I've been kind of hovering around there for the last year or so, and my game is really good. I want to play as well as I can this week, and who knows? If it's my week, I might be able to win.''

But Els has plenty of company.

Singh, who beat Els by one shot earlier in the year at the Sony Open, is coming off a runner-up finish in the Honda Classic. There, he missed a 2 1/2 -foot putt to lose on the second extra hole of a playoff.

He was No. 1 for 26 weeks, and could return to the top with a victory.

That position now is occupied by Woods, and his game isn't shabby, either.

Woods closed with a 63-66 weekend in Miami to overtake Phil Mickelson in a dramatic duel at Doral, and now plays in a tournament he has won four times.

They all care more about winning than the ranking, realizing that one will take care of the other. But it sure gives Bay Hill plenty of buzz, especially with the first major of the year quickly approaching.

``I guess it might be more interesting for the fan,'' Woods said. ``But I'm not a fan. I'm a competitor. My whole idea is to win a tournament. I'm going to go out there and give it everything I've got to win this event, just like Vijay and just like Ernie and anybody else in the field.''

They aren't the only ones at Bay Hill, even though it seems that way. The 118-man field includes nine of the top 12 in the world ranking. The defending champion is Chad Campbell, who made up a four-shot deficit against Stuart Appleby.

One player not in the field is tournament host Arnold Palmer, not expected to play a PGA Tour event for the first time since 1953.

Palmer can appreciate a good rivalry. He was part of the ``Big Three'' that first was marketed by IMG in the 1960s when Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player took turns winning the majors.

``I don't think there's any question that we have some marquee players that are doing a lot in the game,'' Palmer said. ``That's the kind of thing you want to see more and more of to get attention. We're getting it.''

Woods won Bay Hill four straight years until he finished last year with three straight rounds over par and wound up in a tie for 46th, the start of a slump as he changed his swing. The new version is coming together, the best evidence being his two victories in five starts this year.

``I was struggling last year to find my game,'' Woods said. ``This year, I just have to do a couple of touchups, just like you do every day.''

Els is comfortable with his game, too, especially after the last two weeks.

He was poised to at least force a playoff in the season-opening Mercedes Championships until hitting his tee shot out of bounds on the par-5 18th at Kapalua. He had a chance at the Sony Open despite shaky putting. He had good chances at Torrey Pines and Royal Melbourne.

But during his global sojourn, Els made an 18-foot eagle on the last hole to win in Dubai, then rallied from five shots down in the Qatar Masters to win his second straight event on the European tour.

They didn't have the strongest fields in the Middle East, but winning does wonders anywhere in the world.

``It was really important to get back in the winner's circle, especially after the first four weeks,'' Els said. ``I felt I had a chance in all four weeks to win and I didn't finish it off. So to come from the outside and win those two was quite important.''

Els had taken three weeks off to enjoy the beach at his home along the Indian Ocean in South Africa, although he does have a satellite dish and paid attention to the statements being made by the top players -- Woods winning twice, Mickelson winning twice.

``It was good for me to see that the guys are playing well, and probably motivated me a little bit to come back, to play and get into the mix of things,'' Els said. ``The guys are really tearing it up. Those top players that we talk about week in and week out, they are definitely doing the business now.

``It should be one of the more exciting years in golf.''


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