Extra incentive for Kapalua field without Tiger Woods

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Kapaula (Hawai), Jan 3:  In the absence of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the game's lesser lights have a chance to shine this week at the PGA Tour's season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship.

Americans Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker, ranked third and fifth in the world, are the only members of the top eight in the elite field of 31 at the Kapalua Resort. World number one Woods, champion in 1997 and 2000, has decided to skip the winners-only event for the third year in a row to spend more time at home with his family. Second-ranked Mickelson, who won the tournament in 1998 when it was last held at La Costa in California, has not played at Kapalua since 2001.

Other absentees from the event which brings together the title-holders from the previous PGA Tour season include British Open champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland and Australian Adam Scott, last year's runner-up.

"It does help that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott and Padraig aren't here," American Mark Calcavecchia told reporters during preparation for Thursday's opening round. "That increases everybody's chances to win."

Another plus for Calcavecchia is that 13 players will be making their debuts at Kapalua Resort where the hilly par-73 Plantation Course is known for its huge, sloping greens.

"Some of the guys that haven't been here are probably at a slight disadvantage because there's so much elevation change and putts that I remember over the years that are tough," the 1989 British Open champion added.

"You figure if there's 31 guys here, at least six or seven of them are just going to flat-out not play very good. So if you play well, you're down to 20, 22 players you've got to try to beat."

BIGGER NAMES

Former world number one Vijay Singh, who defends the title he clinched by two shots at Kapalua last year, is disappointed some of golf's bigger names are absent.

"It's just unfortunate that the tournament comes in so quickly but it's a big event," the Fijian said.

"I think everybody should be grateful that we have a big event to play in and not just take it for granted that it's the holiday season and we shouldn't be having a tournament."

Stricker, who ended a six-year victory drought by winning the Barclays Classic in August, believes the Mercedes-Benz Championship would benefit from a later date.

"Personally I think we start too early. It's holiday time," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I'm excited as hell to be here but you still have family back home.

"You've got to take off on the 27th or 28th right after Christmas to get over here and make sure you're rested and getting ready. I'd like to see it start a week or two weeks later in the season. I think that would help."

Canadian Stephen Ames, who won the 2007 PGA Tour's season-ending Disney Classic, is scheduled to hit the opening drive of the 2008 campaign at 1045 local (2045 GMT) on Thursday.

One India

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