KAPALUA, Hawaii, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- The 2003 PGA Tour season opens Thursday with the Mercedes Championships, a winners-only event that will be missing the sport's two best players.
World No. 1 Tiger Woods is out until mid-February following knee surgery and second-ranked Phil Mickelson is on a ski trip with his growing family. That leaves South African star Ernie Els as the top-ranked player in the lineup.
It it still a quality 36-man field, featuring only tournament winners from the 2002 season. Five of the top 10 players in the world are at The Plantation Course this week, including defending champion Sergio Garcia of Spain.
"It would be wide-open even if they were here," said Jerry Kelly, who won his first two PGA Tour titles last year. "Having them here would just make winning that much sweeter, but no matter what, it's a good win."
Regardless of who is here, the rewards are high. With a record $235 million available this season, this week's winner will go home with $1 million and a new car.
Garcia defeated David Toms in a playoff here last year and begins the season ranked sixth in the world. It was the only title of 2002 for the three-time PGA Tour winner, who turns 23 Thursday.
"I gave myself a lot of chances to win. Unfortunately, because I didn't putt as well, I didn't win as many times as I should have, or at least I feel I should have," Garcia said. "But I've been working hard at it, just looking forward to seeing some improvement in there."
For Garcia, the absence of Woods and Mickelson will not make things any easier.
"You don't really focus on that," Garcia said. "You just focus on playing well yourself, not what the other guys are doing."
Els, who is third in the world, is coming off a season in which he won a pair of titles, including the British Open for his third career major victory. He finished third here in 2001, a year after losing a playoff to Woods.
Countryman Retief Goosen is back after proving 2001 was no fluke. After winning a dramatic U.S. Open two years ago, the world No. 4 captured his second PGA Tour title in 2002 and had a pair of runner-up finishes -- one to Woods at The Masters.
Also in the field is Vijay Singh of Fiji, who won the last event of the 2002 season -- the Tour Championship. He claimed a pair of titles last year to lift his career total to 11.
Those present this week will face a stiff test this week with the par-73 Plantation Course measuring a hilly 7,263 yards.
"There is probably not a tougher walk on the golf schedule," said Chris Smith, one of last season's 18 first-time winners in the field.
A first-time winner of another kind could surface this week with 20 of the 36 players never having attacked the Plantation Course. Garcia won in his first start on the course last season.
Charles Howell III could duplicate Garcia's feat. He qualified for the event by winning at Kingsmill in October. The 2001 Rookie of the Year also was second at the Tour Championship.
"This is the first year I've been on a level playing field with a lot of the top players on the world," said Howell, who does not have the pressure of trying to qualify for the majors this season. "To start the year knowing I'm in all four majors, that makes a huge difference. So maybe it's more piece of mind."
Like Singh, Luke Donald can extend a winning streak this week. He claimed the rain-shortened Southern Farm Bureau Classic last year for his first top 10 on the tour.