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Jim Furyk looks to defend his Sun City title

The 26th edition of the Nedbank Golf Challenge beginning over the Gary Player Country Club course includes 11 of the world's top 20 golfers.

Heading the list is world No 2 Jim Furyk who is also the defending champion, the American having defeated South Africa's Retief Goosen, Ireland's Darren Clarke and Australia's Adam Scott in a dramatic four-way playoff last year after they all completed 72 holes of regulation play in six-under-par 282.

This winning score is a far cry from the record low of 25-under-par 263 recorded by Ernie Els on his way to victory in the 1999 edition of this annual 12-man invititional known as Africa's Major.

But since then this beautiful bushveld course, carved out of an old volcanic crater, has been made much tougher and much longer.

Today it measures a back-breaking 7138 metres off the championship tees. This year good spring rains and plenty of sun means the rough is up, so there will be a premium on keeping the ball in play on the narrow fairways.

The course should again suit Furyk who is not particularly long off the tee but very straight.

"And even though it is a long course, it's more important to be straight because a big drive in the rough will still probably cost you a shot," says the 36-year-old from Pennsylvania with the curious, looping swing that has earned him two wins on the US PGA Tour this year, as well as three second-place finishes - one of these in the US Open.

Spaniard Sergio Garcia, a two-time champion here (in 2001 and 2003), has yet to record a victory in 2006 but he is putting well and this too will be key factor this week.

"We've had a few days of hot, sunny weather here and the greens are drying out and getting hard and very fast," said Garcia. "It's not going to be easy to stop the ball, and when you do get on the greens you'll need a lot of touch.

"Hopefully, my touch is there," added the Spaniard who snatched victory here in 2001 by beating Ernie Els in a sudden-death playoff with a birdie two at the par-3 16th hole, and then did the same thing to Els's fellow South African Goosen at No 16 in extra time in 2003.

With a 1,2-million-dollar first prize, one of the biggest in golf, it is small wonder that Garcia regards the 16th at the Gary Player Player Country Club as his favourite hole in golf.

Els, who like Ryder Cup star Garcia is still looking for his first win of 2006 but fast running out of tournaments, is a three-time champion here while Goosen, remarkably, has topped the leaderboard after 72 holes of regulation play the last three years - only to lose in playoffs to the Spaniard in 2003 and to Furyk 12 months ago. So 2004 has been his sole victory.

There are four first-timers in this year's field - South Africans Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel, Sweden's Henrik Stenson and Englishman David Howell.

Ireland's Padraig Harrington is the form-horse coming into the tournament, having won the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland in October and the Dunlop Phoenix Open in Japan earlier this month when he outgunned Tiger Woods.

The 35-year-old from Dublin topped the European Tour Order of Merit for the first time this year and is one of five Ryder Cup players in this week's field alongside Garcia, Stenson, Howell and Jose-Maria Olazabal.

Field - With Ranking

2-Jim Furyk (USA), 5-Retief Goosen (RSA), 7-Ernie Els (RSA), 8-Padraig Harrington (IRL), 11-Sergio Garcia (SPA), 12-Henrik Stenson (SWE), 13-Trevor Immelman (RSA), 14-David Howell (ENG), 18-Colin Mongtomerie (SCO), 19-Jose-Maria Olazabal (SPA), 20-Chris DiMarco (USA), 72-Charl Schwartzel (RSA)



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