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Vijay Singh faces tough competion

World number one Vijay Singh will have to contend with an in-form Phil Mickelson when he defends his title at this week's Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Mickelson, the U.S. Masters champion, arrives at the picturesque Monterey Peninsula venue in California fresh from a five-stroke victory at last week's Phoenix Open that included a brilliant 11-under-par 60 in the second round.

"I can't wait to get back on the golf course," said left-hander Mickelson after clinching his 24th win on the PGA Tour.

"I'm excited about the way I'm playing. I'm excited about hitting chips, or putts, or tee shots. I can't wait to get out to the course and practise.

"Vijay didn't play his best last week. I hope to have a chance to go head-to-head with him this week. You know, we've played a lot against each other there. It's a fun challenge, but I don't look at it quite like that."

Singh, however, will be back in welcome surroundings, having produced top 10-finishes in five of his last six starts at Pebble Beach.

His three-shot victory last year, coming after he birdied the first three holes in the final round, set up one of the greatest years in the history of the game.

The smooth-swinging Fijian ended the season with nine PGA Tour titles, more than $10 million in prize money and as the game's leading player, having ended Tiger Woods's five-year reign at the top last September.

Singh then made a fast start to his 2005 campaign by winning last month's Sony Open in Hawaii, although his form has dipped slightly in his last two events.

At last month's Buick Invitational, he stayed in contention until a three-over 75 in the final round left him 11 strokes adrift of winner Woods.

At Phoenix, an event he had won twice, Singh did not break par until rallying with a third-round 66 and a closing 68 left him in a share of 11th place.

The 34-year-old Mickelson, who traditionally makes a blistering start to each season, needed two tournaments to find top gear but is now in prime form.

The victory in Phoenix, his first since last year's U.S. Masters, was achieved with the biggest winning margin of his career despite an opening two-over 73.

The world number four will be looking to improve on last year's effort at Pebble Beach where he finished third, four shots behind Singh after vying with the Fijian over the previous rounds.

The revered $5.3 million event is played over three breath-taking layouts -- Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Poppy Hills -- and will make a sharp contrast to last week's event in Phoenix, which is one of the rowdiest locations on the tour.

Playing conditions will also be very different with the golfers leaving the dry Arizona desert for the generally soggy unsettled weather along the Monterey Peninsula.

Pebble Beach hugs the rugged Pacific coastline and the heavy rains that deluged southern California last month have altered one of golf's most famous holes.

The par-five 18th will play a little tougher this year after nearly 200 square feet of rough along the left side of the hole tumbled into the ocean.

The yawning gap left, located around 290 yards from the tee, could pose a problem for the bigger hitters who opt to try to cut off the dog-leg.


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