Westwood, Els among top PGA contenders
Palm Beach Gardens: Former world number ones Lee Westwood and Ernie Els and reigning British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen will be the star group when the USD 5.6 million PGA Honda Classic opens.
Players from beyond US borders have won five of the past six titles and will be prime contenders for this week`s USD 1 million prize.
Westwood, toppled from the world number one spot by Germany`s Martin Kaymer on Monday after a 17-week reign, could recapture the top spot by finishing alone in third or better. Kaymer is not playing this week.
"It`s great to be number one but it’s not something I concentrate on," said Westwood. "My priority is to play well this week and win the Honda Classic. If I do that, everything else takes care of itself."
Westwood pulled a ligament ahead of last year`s event and shared ninth.
"My game is in good shape," Westwood said. "I’m hitting the ball as good as I`ve hit it for a long time. I’m looking forward to the week."
Els, twice a winner in Florida last March and the 2008 Honda Classic champion, ranks first on the PGA Tour so far this season in reaching greens in regulation, doing so 83.33 percent of the time.
Els has twice shared 17th this season, at the Tournament of Champions and last week when he was ousted in the second round, but he is hoping to lift his game near his Florida home with Masters week only a month away.
"This is the month I would expect to step it up and start producing higher quality golf. To be honest, I really need to," Els said. "I like to think it`ll be a great month in terms of my form."
Oosthuizen, a US PGA rookie playing the PGA National course for the first time, shared 62nd at Phoenix in his tour debut and lost in the first round at last week`s World Golf Championships Match-Play Championship.
Neither Tiger Woods nor Phil Mickelson will play in the event, waiting for next week`s World Golf Championship event at nearby Doral.
Colombia`s Camilo Villegas will defend his crown against a field that also includes 2009 Honda winner Yang Yong-Eun of South Korea and 2006 winner Luke Donald of England, the world number three who won the Match-Play crown last week.
Zimbabwe`s Nick Price, who won the event in 1994 during the same season he captured the British Open and his second PGA Championship title, makes a rare appearance in the field.
England`s Justin Rose and Americans Ben Crane and Stewart Cink are among those who withdrew from the event.
The course features a pivotal segment in the 15th, 16th and 17th holes. Popularly known as "The Bear Trap" after "Golden Bear" Jack Nicklaus redesigned the course in 1990, the stretch was the second-toughest three-hole stretch in a US PGA event last year and the back nine was the hardest outside the majors.