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Big names face early showdown in Hawaii

Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, the world's top three players, have the chance to establish an early psychological advantage for this year's majors at the PGA Tour's season-opening Mercedes Championships in Hawaii.

World number one Singh, who won nine times on the 2004 Tour, will tee off in Thursday's first round as slight favourite but Woods and Els are upbeat about their own form going into the elite limited-field tournament at the Kapalua Resort.

Although Woods has not won a major since the 2002 U.S. Open, he ended last year with victories in his final two strokeplay events and believes his revamped swing is now ready for the heat of battle.

"This is an exciting time for me and I can't wait for the PGA Tour season to start," said the former world number one, who spent much of 2004 working with swing coach Hank Haney.

"At the Target (World Challenge), I drove it long and straight for most of the week," he added, referring to his final tournament of last year. "It was such a nice feeling to just let it go.

"I reaped some rewards at the end of the year for my hard work and that was very satisfying. Hopefully, my good play will carry over to 2005."

World number three Els, winner at the Plantation Course in Kapalua in 2003 and runner-up to Woods there in 2000, is also raring to go after holidaying with his family in his native South Africa.

"I had a good time off and I'm really looking forward to it," the 35-year-old told reporters. "The last couple of years I've played well in Hawaii and I love coming here.

"Winning any tournament to start off with will be great, and then see how the momentum builds. But there's a whole bunch of players (who could win this week).

"Vijay is the man at the moment. Tiger has had a really good off-season. And you've got to mention Retief (Goosen) here. He might have a great year, I feel."

Singh, however, will be the player to watch over the next four days as he bids to maintain his golden run of form.

The workaholic Fijian, who ended Woods's five-year reign as world number one last September, produced one of the greatest individual years in the history of the game in 2004.

His nine PGA Tour victories helped him become the first player in tour history to earn more than $10 million in a single season. Overall, he racked up 18 top-10 finishes in 29 starts, and won himself $376,040 every week he played.

"I just want to go out there and see if I can play like I did last year, not really focus so much on winning golf tournaments or the money list or my position in the world ranking," said Singh.

"Starting this season, I know everybody is going to be starting level. World ranking does not matter at all.

"You've just got to go out there and play, get in front as quick as possible and see if you can stay there. That's the way I've always thought, and hopefully I'm going to start that way again."

Australia's Stuart Appleby, who held off a furious late charge by Singh to win at Kapalua last year by a shot, is back to defend his crown in the tournament that brings together all the title winners from the previous PGA Tour season.

A notable absentee from this week's field of 31 is U.S. Masters champion Phil Mickelson, twice a winner of the event when it was staged at La Costa Country Club in Carlsbad, California.

The left-handed Mickelson also missed the event in 2003, and was not eligible to play last year.


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