Bay Hill Invitational players to watch

Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill party takes place this week with an elite field tuning up for next week's fifth major.

The Bay Hill Invitational features one of the smallest fields of the season -- 121 players -- on a classic course which has been home to the tournament since 1979. Some of the recent winners show the significance of this tournament: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Ernie Els.

Most of the big names are in the field this week, tuning up for next week's Players Championship. A number of European stars are also using Bay Hill to prepare for the TPC at Sawgrass. Lee Westwood, Niclas Fasth, Paul McGinley and Retief Goosen are among those getting a feel for the same type of greens they will see next week.

Bay Hill is the third stop on the four-week Florida swing, and the 12th tournament of the 2002 season. So far, 11 players have won the first 11 tournaments, the third-longest streak since 1980. In 1994, 20 players won the first 20 tournaments.

To further illustrate the depth of the tour this season, Brad Faxon tops the money list at $1.2 million -- and he has yet to win. It's the first time in more than 30 years that a player with the most money this deep into the season had not won a tournament.

Bay Hill also continues the unofficial march to The Masters, which now looms a month away. All that stands between Bay Hill and the first major are the Players Championship, and stops in Houston and Atlanta.

Ten to watch
Ernie Els: Easily the hottest player in golf, but it would be unreasonable to think jet lag won't hit Els this week. He's won his past three stroke-play events -- in Australia, Florida and Dubai. He won at Bay Hill in 1998, but could be saving his energy for next week.

Brad Faxon: The leading money-winner on the PGA Tour this year, Faxon has four top-10s in six starts, including a second at Riviera, third at the Match Play Championship and second at Honda in his last three tournaments.

Fred Funk: In seven tournaments this season, Funk hasn't had a round over par nor finished worse than 27th. His par-or-better streak goes back to October at Disney World. Last year, he tied for 15th at Bay Hill with four rounds at par or better.

Sergio Garcia: Since his big splash to start the season by winning the Mercedes, things have been fairly quiet for Garcia. He played well at Bay Hill last year, finishing in a tie for fourth after briefly holding the lead on Saturday.

Retief Goosen: The hottest player in golf over the past year, Goosen has wins this year in South Africa and Australia. Now his focus is on getting ready for The Masters, and the jet lag should be gone for his second week in Florida.

Scott McCarron: Had a good chance to win his last two starts, instead settling for second at both Riviera and the Match Play Championship, losing leads on the back nine on Sunday in both cases. Playing as well as anybody right now.

Phil Mickelson: After three dismal peformances in California, showed signs of real self last week at Honda where he tied for 11th. Has always played well at Bay Hill, winning in 1997 and pushing Woods to the finish last year, coming up one shot shy.

Jose Maria Olazabal: Playing for the first time in March, Olazabal can only hope for another month like February when he had top-10 finishes every week, including a win at Torrey Pines.

Loren Roberts: One of the shortest hitters in the game, Roberts has been effective at Bay Hill nonetheless. He won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, and came close to a win at Tucson three weeks ago.

Kevin Sutherland: Playing for the first time as a PGA Tour champion, Sutherland is back on the course following his triumph at the Match Play Championship. His confidence will be soaring, especially with the way he putted with the claw grip and scrambled at La Costa.

Greg Robertson is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at greg.robertson@dig.com.