Originally created 03/06/03

Els starts title defense in Dubai



DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Tiger Woods posters are everywhere. His photo is even on the tournament's official magazine.

The only thing missing is Woods.

He pulled out of the $1.2 million Dubai Desert Classic this week because of a possible U.S.-led attack of Iraq. His absence leaves Ernie Els with top billing.

Els has won four of the five tournaments he played this season. The South African is going for his third Dubai title, having won last year and in 1994.

This time, he leads a 150-man field that includes six players who helped Europe defeat the United States in last year's Ryder Cup.

"It is going to be a bit more difficult than previous years because the course is tougher," Els said Wednesday. "It is very lush and it is playing very long, so it is difficult to get it out and to the hole."

Other absentees from the European PGA event include former champion Colin Montgomerie of Scotland and Nick Faldo of England, both because of rising tension in the area.

"It is a very serious situation. You know I can understand why they did that," Els said. "But I am here and I am happy about that."

Denmark's Thomas Bjorn, who beat Woods at the last hole to win the tournament in 2001, says Els is clearly the player to watch.

"Ernie has shown some fantastic form early this year and pretty much of last season as well," he said. "It is difficult to go up against him at the moment."

Bjorn was not quite as understanding as Els about the late withdrawals.

"I always say that you should not commit yourself to a golf tournament and then pull out," he said.