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Els Ready For Another PGA Title

The road to the Masters is a little shorter this year.

Instead of starting at Doral, it begins Thursday in the Bay Hill Invitational. And it's not just because the field features 10 of the top 12 players in the world ranking.

Seve Ballesteros, last seen zooming across Valderrama in a cart during the Ryder Cup, was on the practice green at Bay Hill Club rolling 20-foot putts toward his caddie. On the range was Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke, the "Spice Boys" from the European tour.

Ian Woosnam stood outside the locker room, his face beet red from a day in the sun.

"Quite a few of the European guys have come," defending champion Ernie Els said Wednesday. "This is probably the run-up for the Masters now."

Throw Tiger Woods into the mix. Playing his first stroke-play tournament in a month, Woods shook off a case of the flu in recent weeks and was looking forward to the warm wind and slick greens of Florida, which he hoped would be a nice way to prepare for the deceptive breezes and extremely slick greens of Augusta National.

"It's my first time in Florida, and a different type of wind," Woods said. "It's something I need to get used to again."

Don't get the idea that Bay Hill is simply four days of fine-tuning for either The Players Championship next week or the Masters the second week in April. History will show that Fred Couples is the only player who has won Bay Hill and the Masters in the same year, and no one has ever won the Players and Masters in the same year.

But as strong as fields are these days, as deep as the talent runs around the globe, there's no use waiting a month to get the game in shape.

"I don't want to think about the Masters until I really get there," Els said. "We've got most of the best players here. Next week we call the fifth major -- probably the best field you'll find throughout the year.

"I've tried to really just get myself in good shape and not go as hard. You can't do that anymore," he said. "I think you waste your time to come out here and just work on your game instead of really giving it a big shot. I'm going to try to have a good week."

Els won last year and then fizzled in the Masters. Westwood won in New Orleans the week before the Masters, and he also failed to be a factor.

"I want to win this week," Westwood said. "I haven't played muc this year, so I need to get some confidence and get some kind of a roll going. Winning New Orleans gave me confidence. I proved to myself I could come over here and win."

The only top 10 players missing from Arnold Palmer's tournament are David Duval, who usually takes most of Florida off and has only played Bay Hill once in the past three years, and Nick Price, whose kids are on spring break this week.

Besides Greg Norman, resting his shoulder for a three-week run that starts next week, the only other absentee worth noting this week is Fluff Cowan. Woods fired his caddie earlier this month and replaced him with Steve Williams, who used to work for Norman a decade ago and most recently Raymond Floyd.

"I've told him things I want and expect, and he tells me how he likes it," Woods said. "It's going to be great. He's very professional, and that's what I've always wanted and always admired about him."

So how does a caddie go from the senior tour (Floyd) to one of the longest players on the PGA Tour?

"He caddied for Norman, and at the time Greg probably hit his irons almost as far as I do now," Woods said. "So he remembers back to those days."

It doesn't take much for Els to remember what happened last year at Bay Hill.

Because of the rain, the final 36 holes were played on Sunday with a threesome that included three of the four major championship winners -- Els, Woods and Davis Love III -- in the last group.

Els shot a 65 to take control and went on to a four-stroke victory. Woods and Love finished a dozen strokes back.

"I want to have some good vibes from last year," Els said.

Els has a chance to become only the second player to repeat as Bay Hill champion in its 21-year history. Loren Roberts won in 1994-95.

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