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PGA: Bell South Classic
BellSouth Classic 2004
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Zach Johnson aiming for Bell South defence

Playing his best golf of the season, Zach Johnson is back to defend his title at the $5 million BellSouth Classic.

Last year, Johnson held off Mark Hensby by one stroke for his first PGA Tour victory. He enters the tournament coming off a strong showing on the tour's swing through Florida.

Johnson has posted three consecutive top-10 finishes. He was third at the Ford Championship, eighth at Bay Hill and an impressive eighth in his Players Championship debut.

"I feel good about where my game is at," Johnson said. "It's a kind of a stretch where you want to get things rolling. I hope it carries into this weekend and for the rest of the year, for that matter."

Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen headline the field and both will be looking to make the trip across the state to Augusta on a roll.

Mickelson, the winner here in 2000, is the event's leading money winner with $1,133,416 in seven appearances. He finished 10th here last year. Goosen was victorious here in 2002.

"This will be a big week for me to get momentum and to get confidence in the way I've been playing," Mickelson said. "I've put a lot of time in, now it's time to start having it pay off."

Just a week before The Masters, the BellSouth is an important event on the tour for several reasons and has become a regular stop on Mickelson's schedule. The winner here is the first qualifier for next year's Players Championship.

The par-72, 7,293-yard TPC at Sugarloaf has challenging greens and undulating putting surfaces that are a preview to the test awaiting Masters participants.

"This tournament has great practice facilities," Mickelson said. "It gives me the opportunity to work on my game and get sharp and to not worry about what's coming up next week."

Johnson is trying to become the first back-to-back winner since Hale Irwin in 1975 and 1977. There was no event held in 1976 because the U.S. Open was being conducted at the neighboring Atlanta Athletic Club. A repeat win would send the 29-year-old into his Masters debut riding a huge wave of momentum.

"I've got a goal before that, that's this week," Johnson said. "I enjoyed this course. It's a very good course to prepare for Augusta. I can understand why, although I haven't seen Augusta, I can see the resemblances. The hills and the type of grass and the firmness and hardness of the greens. So it should be a good stepping stone to next week."

The tournament record of 265 was set in 1979 by Andy Bean and matched by Dave Barr in 1987 at the Atlanta Country Club.

 

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