Lesser lights get chance to shine as big names shun PGA opener

IN THE absence of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, the game's lesser lights have a chance to make an impact this week at the PGA Tour's season-opening Mercedes Championships in Hawaii.

World number two Vijay Singh, who faded to fifth in last year's tournament after leading for the first three days, is the only member of the world's top five in the elite field at the Kapalua Resort.

Top-ranked Woods, champion in 1997 and 2000, has decided to skip his usual early-season event to spend more time at home after playing a full schedule last year.

"I just need some time away from the game," the US Masters and British Open champion said on his official website.

"As much as I enjoy going to Kapalua Resort, it's been a long season and I have played a lot of golf. I need a break to recharge my batteries, let my body heal and hang out with family and friends."

Woods, who celebrated his 30th birthday on December 30, will launch his 2006 campaign at the Buick Invitational in La Jolla, California later this month. USPGA champion Mickelson, twice a winner of the Mercedes Championships when it was staged at La Costa Country Club in Carlsbad, California, has opted to miss this week's event for the fourth time in five years.

In 2004, the San Diego resident was not eligible to play in the tournament that brings together all the winners from the previous PGA Tour season.

South African Els, champion at Kapalua's Plantation Course in 2003 with a record tournament aggregate of 261 and runner-up to Woods there in 2000, is another notable absentee this week, along with compatriot Retief Goosen, the world number four.

Fifth-ranked Els will miss the first two events of the PGA Tour season in an attempt to improve on his disappointing form at last year's majors.

'Big Easy', as he is affectionately known, will not play on American soil until the Nissan Open in California in mid-February, the start of his serious build-up to the April US Masters, the first major of the year.

While Woods and company are conspicuous by their absence this week, Australia's Stuart Appleby will have his sights set on joining Gene Littler in the record books with a third successive victory.

Appleby, who held off a furious late charge by Singh to triumph at Kapalua in 2004 by a shot, became the event's first back-to-back winner in 22 years last January with a closing round of six-under-par 67. "I think every player comes here and thinks: 'Wow, this is fantastic'," the 34-year-old Australian said after his 2005 triumph.

"But I've always had that mentality that it's one shot at a time.

"That's an attitude that I did have last year, I know that. I don't win tournaments unless I have that mentality."

American Littler won the tournament at Desert Inn Country Club in Las Vegas from 1955 to 1957 when the event was known as the Tournament of Champions.

The 28-strong field for the tournament which starts tomorrow will face a revamped par-73 Plantation Course.

All the greens have been replaced since last year, with renovated contours on the putting surfaces at the fourth, eighth and 15th. New bunkers have been installed on the 15th and 16th.

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