Major winners out in force for Asia's richest event

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BEIJING, Nov 6 (Reuters) World number two Phil Mickelson and number four Ernie Els lead a cosmopolitan field in the battle for Asia's richest prize at the third Champions tournament in Shanghai this week.

In Mickelson, Els, Padraig Harrington, Vijay Singh, Angel Cabrera and Retief Goosen, the Champions -- which organisers hope one day will be ''Asia's major'' -- boasts six players with 13 major championship victories between them.

With world number one Tigers Woods skipping the 5 million dollar event for the first time, his fellow American Mickelson will be the man to beat among the Tuscan villas of the Sheshan course starting on Thursday.

The form player, though, is Argentina's US Open champion Cabrera, who held off Fijian Singh to win the Singapore Open last weekend and move up to 14th in the world.

Mickelson was disappointed with his share of 23rd on his Asian debut in Singapore and is hoping for better on his first trip to China.

''China is a country I've heard so much about,'' said the 37-year-old. ''I've been reading about it myself and I'm ecstatic to be going, to see some of the sights as well as to compete in the golf tournament.

''I would really like to win an international title of this magnitude, especially as I will be competing against so many great winners from the different tours,'' he added.

The Champions is co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours, the PGA Tour of Australasia, South Africa's Sunshine Tour and the China Golf Association.

LOFTY AMBITIONS Despite the lofty ambitions of tournament organisers,last year's winner was unheralded South Korean Yang Yong-eun and England's David Howell was the inaugural champion in 2005.

Yang's shock triumph will give hope to this year's Asian challengers led by South Korean KJ Choi and local hope Liang Wenchong.

Liang, poised to become the first Chinese to win the Asian Order of Merit, was typically cautious about his chances.

''It's the biggest event in China and that puts pressure on the Chinese players and that puts pressure on me,'' he said.

''I'm very happy that I'm popular. I'll just have to do my best ... Money-wise it's big, but it's another tournament; one step in my journey. I want to do well, but it's a part of the journey.'' The 2007 European Tour season ended last weekend in Valderrama and Harrington will be in Shanghai trying to get a head start in the 2008 race after relinquishing his Order of Merit crown to Justin Rose.

''The Champions has one of the strongest fields outside of the majors and it would be a great event to win to kick off my 2008 season and boost my year-end ranking,'' said Ireland's British Open champion.

REUTERS SSC DS1250

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