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Phil Mickelson favourite for Nissan Open

This week's Nissan Open has the look and feel of a major championship, despite the notable absence of world number one Tiger Woods.

Eight of the game's top nine players, and 20 of the leading 25, head a strong field at Riviera Country Club, a par-71 venue which has hosted one U.S. Open and two PGA Championships.

Although Woods has decided not to play, golf fans will be eager to see if fourth-ranked Phil Mickelson can build on the superb form that took him to a commanding five-shot victory at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Sunday.

The Masters champion, who says he has never driven the ball better, hit 82 percent of his fairways last week en route to his 30th PGA Tour title.

Mickelson's return to his best sounded a warning to his rivals for this year's majors, and he made a late decision to play at the Nissan Open to test his driving on a tight, tree-lined layout.

"I have never driven it as well as I'm driving right now and I'm really excited about playing Riviera," the American left-hander told reporters.

"I'm excited about playing tight golf courses and I feel I can get the ball in play easy.

"In the past, I would miss a lot of fairways here," added the Californian, who makes his ninth appearance at Riviera this week but first since 2001.

"If you put it in play there, I think it's a course you can really attack. I want to try and get into contention a couple more times (before the Masters in April) because I wasn't in contention the first three weeks."

Mickelson failed to finish inside the top 40 in his first three PGA Tour starts of the year, including a missed cut at the Phoenix Open two weeks ago.

Although he will start Thursday's opening round as a firm favorite in the eyes of many, players such as Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Adam Scott will be worth monitoring.

Three-times major champion Els, in 1999, and Scott, in 2005, are former winners at Riviera and Goosen clinched the European Tour's Qatar Masters two weeks ago in his last start.

"I come back to Riviera with high expectations," said South African Els, who makes his first appearance on the 2007 PGA Tour.

"It's one of those golf courses where I've always enjoyed playing. I think it's one of the best we play all year."

Goosen, also making his first PGA Tour start this season, would dearly love to shine after being disqualified from the event in 2005 for missing his tee-off time in the pro-am.

"I have brought six alarm clocks with me this week, so I'm not going to be sleeping so well before Wednesday and Thursday," the twice U.S. Open champion joked.

"I would love to win here this week. It's a great golf course and a great event with great history behind it."

Fellow South African Rory Sabbatini is defending champion, having won last year's title by a shot after closing with a one-over-par 72.

There is very little rough at Riviera, following a drought since last April and an unusually cold spell in the Los Angeles area since the start of the year.

With sunshine forecast for the rest of the week, fast fairways and firm greens will provide a challenging test for the players.

February 14, 2007


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