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Stuart Appleby seeks fourth Mercedes title

In the absence of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, Australia's Stuart Appleby has a golden opportunity to win a rare fourth successive title at this week's Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii.

Appleby completed a record-equaling hat-trick of victories in the PGA Tour's season-opening event at the Kapalua Resort when he edged out Fijian Vijay Singh in a playoff last year.

That put him level with American Gene Littler, who claimed the title at Desert Inn Country Club in Las Vegas from 1955 to 1957 when the event was named the Tournament of Champions.

Although Appleby knows Kapalua's undulating, par-73 Plantation Course as well as anyone in the 34-strong field, he is taking nothing for granted.

"I don't feel like this is my home course or anything," the 35-year-old told reporters.

"I think everybody knows how to play the course. It's all about scoring here. You've got to score on the short holes."

Should the Australian succeed this week, he would become the first player since Woods (at the 2003 Bay Hill Invitational) to win a PGA Tour event four years in a row.

World number one Woods, champion at Kapalua in 2000, decided last week to skip the event which brings together all the title-holders from the previous PGA Tour season.

"I considered playing but I just haven't been able to prepare," the 31-year-old American said in a statement.

"I usually spend at least one week working on my game before a tournament, and have been unable to do that this year."

Woods, in Colorado for 12 days last month on a skiing holiday with his family and friends, also wants to spend more time with his wife Elin, who is expecting their first child later this year.

Left-hander Mickelson, champion at Kapalua in 1994 and 1998, has not played in the elite-field event since 2001. Els, winner in 2003, did not qualify for this year after a winless 2006 PGA Tour campaign.

Although the Mercedes-Benz Championship will launch the 'new era' for the world's biggest and most lucrative tour, only eight of the game's leading 20 players are playing this week.

Other absentees include twice U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, like fellow South African Els not eligible after failing to win last season, and Irish world number eight Padraig Harrington.

Appleby will, however, face a strong challenge from players such as Singh, Australian world number four Adam Scott and second-ranked Jim Furyk, the 2001 champion.

Furyk, who has a holiday home on the course, is always delighted to be back on familiar terrain.

"I've played well here in the past with a couple of wins on this course," said the 36-year-old American with one of the game's most unorthodox swings.

"We're all trying, every one of us, to be in this event. But it's extra special. It's one of my favorite vacation spots. I enjoy the area, and I enjoy the golf course a lot."

An extra motivation for the players is that this week's event will launch the inaugural FedExCup, a season-long points competition culminating in a four-event playoff series with $10 million to be won by the overall champion.

Thirteen players will make their Kapalua debuts when the tournament starts on Thursday, among them 2006 PGA Tour rookies Trevor Immelman of South Africa and Americans J.B. Holmes, Eric Axley and Troy Matteson.

December 31, 2006


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