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Augusta in mind for many at Dubai

Former winners Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie go into this week's Dubai Desert Classic with Augusta on their mind -- but for very different reasons.

South African Els hopes his impressive early-season form will peak at next month's U.S. Masters while Montgomerie is determined not to miss out on Augusta National for the first time since 1991.

Els, Dubai Desert Classic champion in 1994 and 2002, is feeling refreshed from a three-week break after producing top-six finishes in his first five starts of the year.

"I feel like I'm swinging well and really hitting the ball well," the world number three told a news conference at the Emirates Golf Club on Wednesday.

"I've been playing well but just didn't finish the job in the first five weeks that I played.

"I had chances to win each time and every time I didn't quite do it," added the twice U.S. Open champion, who tied for third at the PGA Tour's season-opening Mercedes Championships in Hawaii before placing second the following week at the Sony Open.

"My long game is really good but my short game is not quite as sharp. That's what I want to work on the next couple of weeks. It's just a matter of putting everything together.

"Everything is there or thereabouts. I just know I'm putting it all together and making it a final package kind of the thing, and that's exciting for me.

"Hopefully it will all fall into place at Augusta in five weeks' time," added the easy-swinging South African, who contended in all four majors last year without winning any of them.

The U.S. Masters, the first of the year's four majors, will be held at Augusta from April 7 to 10.

Montgomerie, like Els, feels confident about his game but needs to climb another 13 spots in the world rankings by the end of this month to book his place at Augusta.

"And it's not just the Masters but the TPC (the Players Championship at Sawgrass, Florida)," said the world number 63, who was champion in Dubai in 1996.

"My first goal is the TPC. I've got two tournaments to get into the top 50, and that means at least winning the next one or two.

"I'm very excited about my form," added the seven-times European number one, who placed fifth at the rain-shortened Nissan Open in Los Angeles two weeks ago after firing a superb second-round 64.

"I feel, if I can get into the field, I have as a good chance as I have had in the last 20 years of winning either the TPC or the Masters. I'm not making up numbers, I can assure you.

"Scoring the best score of the day at Riviera (venue for the Nissan Open) has given me huge confidence, and that's the lowest score I've ever had in the States.

"I think I'm more relaxed than I have ever been and I'm happier," added the 41-year-old Scot, who was in the throes of a divorce for much of last year before ending 2004 81st in the rankings.

However, neither Montgomerie nor Els can expect an easy ride this week with a strong field at the Emirates Golf Club ready for Thursday's opening round.

European Ryder Cup players Lee Westwood, Miguel Angel Jimenez, David Howell and Paul McGinley are all playing, as are Sweden's Niclas Fasth and South African Charl Schwartzel, both winners earlier this year.

Also in the hunt are former British Open champions Greg Norman and Ben Curtis, and Denmark's Thomas Bjorn, who held off Tiger Woods to win the 2001 title.

Twice major champion Mark O'Meara is back to defend the title he won last year by a shot from Irishman McGinley.

 

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