Tiger-Ernie playoff repeat would be fitting

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The 2003 winners get a leg up on the rest of the PGA Tour this week as the 2004 season kicks off at the Mercedes Championships.

Thirty players will tee it up starting Thursday on a soggy Plantation Course, but most eyes will be on Tiger Woods, who will begin his eighth full season on tour still head and shoulders above the rest despite not winning the money title or a major in 2003.

The closest thing Woods has to a rival is Ernie Els, the sweet-swinging South African who won seven tournaments around the world last year. Their dramatic Presidents Cup playoff in November really put that into focus. Vijay Singh is getting closer, but Els is still clearest in Tiger's rear-view mirror.

"I think Tiger is still the No. 1 player in the world," Els said. "Tiger is still Tiger. He's the guy. He brings all the credentials to each event. We approach it
differently (when he's in the field). When he's on his game, he's still the guy to beat."

The Presidents Cup playoff was something special, but you could argue it was only the second-best showdown between Woods and Els. The duo's greatest duel came right here at Kapalua at the 2000 Mercedes Championships, where they went toe-to-toe over the final 54 holes. Els matched Woods' eagle at the final hole of the tournament to force a playoff, and after both birdied the first extra hole Woods holed a 40-footer for birdie to win it on the next.

Here's hoping that scenario plays out again this week. I can't think of a more thrilling way to kick off the season than to have Woods -- who missed the Mercedes last year after offseason knee surgery -- and defending champion Els in the hunt on Sunday afternoon.

One thing's for sure, we won't see the record-low scores the guys posted here last year. Els broke the PGA Tour's 72-hole record for score in relation to par in last year's victory, and none of the 36 players finished the week over par. But those red numbers were posted in ideal scoring conditions. The course's only defense is Hawaii's dependable winds -- which can gust up to 35 miles per hour at times -- and those breezes inexplicably stayed away, turning the tournament into a birdiefest. It was a fluke, something I've never seen here before, and I've been coming over for the last 30 years.

The course will also play a lot longer than usual because it's rained about seven out of the last 10 days here. It poured for about 72 straight hours last weekend, dropping 13 inches of water on the course. Because of the drastic elevation changes, the course should drain properly, but guys aren't going to be able to fly it as far as they usually do here, at least not until the weekend. That's a shame because this course plays best when it's fast.

The soggy conditions are going to favor players who can hit it long and in the air, which means an automatic advantage for the usual cast of characters: Woods, Els, Singh and Davis Love III.

"It's playing a lot softer than last year," Els said. "It's not really running at all. It's
going to help the long hitters even more."

Five Things To Watch
1. The field is a lot smaller (30) than what we usually see at a winners-only event, mostly because five players combined to win 19 tournaments in 2003. Despite its small size, it's a stronger field than last year, when 18 first-timers played (compared to eight this year) and the world's top two at the time -- Woods and Phil Mickelson -- both skipped it. Eight of the world's top 10 are here this week, compared to five in 2003.

2. Like everything in Hawaii, this event is pretty laid back compared to other tour stops. Some guys even brought their families over early to enjoy the sun. Some see it as a bonus, a reward for having a great season the year before. At the same time, they realize it's a chance to get a leg up on the competition, so they take it very seriously. Some haven't picked up a club in over a month, which means the guys who've been working hard this winter will have an advantage.

3. Watch out for Jim Furyk, he's at home here at Kapalua -- literally. He owns a house on the course and is the only guy who's played in this event each of the six years it's been held at Kapalua. He won here in 2001 and has never finished out of the top 10 the other four years here.

4. What a season-opening stretch for 50-year-old Craig Stadler. After winning on both tours last year (just the second player to accomplish that feat), he gets to play two winners-only events in Hawaii in three weeks: the Mercedes Championships and the Champions Tour's MasterCard Championship at the end of January. In between, he'll play in the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Honolulu.

5. Voluntary driver testing makes its debut in Kapalua (some players were testing the portable device earlier this week), but I really don't think it's going to be an issue. I don't think we'll see two clubs that will be ruled illegal all year, I really don't. The equipment manufacturers won't let it happen because they can't afford to have one of their players called out as using non-conforming clubs.

The Course
The Plantation Course is a long track (7,263 yards, par 73) built on quite a slope along the cliffs of western Maui with huge elevation changes. For example, between the 17th tee to the 18th green there's a total drop of 300 feet.

Besides the ups and downs that make it one of the hardest walks on tour, the wind also will play a big factor. Depending on the breeze, long holes can play short or short holes can play long. On the mammoth 663-yard par-5 18th, for instance, a driver and 5 iron (sometimes even less) can get you there in two if the wind is at your back. But if the wind's in your face, reaching the much shorter 473-yard, par-4 first hole in two will be difficult.

The trade winds blow in the same direction probably 80 percent to 90 percent of the time, and the course was designed around that fact. But if the Kona winds roll in and blow from the opposite direction, then you've got real problems. As long as the trade winds blow, scoring conditions will be favorable, but the Kona winds can change things dramatically.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North serves as an analyst for ESPN and will be covering the Mercedes Championships all week. SportsTicker contributed to this report.