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Woods Heads Depleted Field in Spain

It might be a World Golf Championship in title, but it's not in field. Thirteen of the top 50 players in the world have decided to skip this week's American Express Championship in Sotogrande, Spain. Yet, there are big stakes for the big names who are in attendance, namely a $1 million first-place check.

Fifty-five players, representing six major tours, will tee it up this week at the Valderrama Golf Club. Defending champion Tiger Woods, who can pass the $10 million mark in earnings with a win this week, heads this list of participants; however, he is one of the few top-ranking Americans to make the cross-Atlantic trip.

Tiger is the only U.S. player inside the top 15 on the official World Golf Ranking playing in the season finale. Phil Mickelson (ranked third in the world) is not here, neither is David Duval (fourth), nor Davis Love III (seventh), nor Hal Sutton (eighth), nor Tom Lehman (10th) nor Jim Furyk (15th).

Of the 13 players currently inside the top 50 in the World Ranking, 12 are U.S.-born. Australian Greg Norman (ranked 42nd) is the lone exception.

Still, Europe's best are competing this week; and truth be told, their participation should provide more excitement. While Tiger has already wrapped up every award and title imaginable on the PGA Tour, the European money race is still up for grabs.

Tiger Woods and Darren Clarke converse at ValderramaDarren Clarke currently leads Lee Westwood on the 2000 Volvo Order of Merit by roughly $90,000 - small change in a tournament worth $5 million. Overall, Ernie Els, Michael Campbell and even Colin Montgomerie have a chance to overtake Clarke in earnings by tournament's end.

Monty will have to win this week and hope for a major collapse by all those in front of him to retain the Order of Merit title for the eighth consecutive season, though he hardly seems optimistic.

'You've got to beat Tiger Woods, don't you? That is almost impossible,' said the Scot.

Clarke would tend to disagree, seeing as how he beat the world's No. 1-ranked player head-to-head in the World Golf Championship's first event of the year, the Andersen Consulting World Match Play Championship.

'Monty says a lot of things,' said Clarke. 'Tiger's record speaks for itself, but he was expected to win (The Tour Championship) and he didn't quite manage it.'

Westwood is another player who has had success at Woods' expense. The Englishman bettered the American at this year's Deutsche Bank-SAP Open for his first title in 2000. A win this week and Westwood would set a European Tour record with seven victories in a single season.

'The Order of Merit is not something that concerns me that much,' said Westwood. 'Winning the tournament is what matters, because it would mean beating Tiger and giving me that record.'

While not top-heavy with Americans, there is a strong Spanish contingency at Valderrama. Two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, Sergio Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez will be representing the host country.

Jimenez lost this event last year in a playoff with Woods. Since then, several changes have been made to the course known as the Augusta of Europe.

'If anything, the changes will help Tiger,' said Olazabal. 'They will favor his long game, even though the course is very narrow.'

Just what Tiger needs, another advantage.