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Record Prize Money up for grabs in 1999

The 1999 PGA Tour season will be by far the most lucrative ever, but that does not mean all of the world's top players are flocking to play in the United States.

Fear that the PGA Tour's huge purses would cripple the European Tour appear to have been unwarranted as Europe's "big three" -- Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke -- have decided to stay loyal to their home tour.

So much money is on the table world-wide this year that the top players can make a fortune while playing only a sparse schedule.

There will be 47 official tour events in 1999, offering a total purse of $131.7 million, according to PGA Tour officials.

That includes three new World Championships events, all of which will offer purses of $5 million with a whopping $1 million for the winner.

It's no wonder that Westwood, who won seven times world-wide last year -- four in Europe, twice in Japan and once in the United States -- would rather pick his spots than grind it out in places like Milwaukee and Moline.

"A lot of people ask me why I don't play far more (in the U.S.) when they're playing for $3 million a week, but money's not a driving force to me," Westwood said after winning the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan last November.

"I don't particularly like playing there. Why do something you don't like when you can avoid it? When I play in America it feels like I'm going to work. When I play in a European event it feels like a way of life," he continued.

"In Italy we eat pasta, in Spain we drink Rioja and when we're in Germany the beer is great," added Westwood.

"I do like the courses, the players and the way they run the tournaments in America, but to me quality of life counts very highly and I don't have the quality of life on the U.S. Tour."

Westwood plans to restrict his U.S. schedule to probably less than 10 events this year -- the majors, the World Championships tournaments, the Players Championship and one or two others. Montgomerie and Clarke are expected to do likewise.

There should be one other trip across the Atlantic for the trio, when the fierce Ryder Cup competition with the top Americans resumes in September. The Europeans will travel to The Countryclub in Brookline, Massachusetts, to defend the Cup they won in Spain in 1997.

The season opens in this Hawaiian paradise setting on the island of Maui on Thursday with the Mercedes Championship, a 30-man event restricted to winners on tour last year.

While most of the big names are ready to kick off the 1999 campaign, four notable eligible players are absent -- Ernie Els, who was recently married in South Africa, Nick Price, who is home in Zimbabwe, Olin Browne, sidelined by wrist surgery, and Hal Sutton, whose wife had twins.

It's been less than four weeks since many of the top players completed their 1998 campaigns at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, where the American team was humbled by the International side.

"After Christmas, I couldn't believe that six days later I was getting on a plane," said Fred Couples of the very short off season

The season opener rarely offers a good indication of how the year will unfold with much of the field rusty after the Christmas break.

Still, there will be plenty of interest in how Tiger Woods starts the year following a relatively disappointing 1998 during which he won just once on the PGA Tour and once overseas after taking the golf world by storm the previous year.

Woods should feel at home on Kapalua's Plantation course, where the fairways are so wide that long hitters can swing away without fear of finding trouble off the tee, even in a howling ocean gale.

"It's different to almost any course we play all year," said Jim Furyk. "It's a place you have to get used to.

"The long holes tend to play downwind, downhill and down grain, and the shorter holes are the opposite, so you play by feel and instinct."