Thursday, May 29, 2008

DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Sergio Garcia's best shot at winning the Memorial Tournament came in 2001 when he tied for second.

Reminded that he finished a distant seven shots behind Tiger Woods, Garcia laughed and said, ``It wasn't a very good chance then, was it?''

Woods, who has won the Memorial three times and has finished in the top five three more, won't be around this week at Muirfield Village. That leaves a huge opening for the prospective contenders at the tournament that Jack Nicklaus founded.

While Woods recovers from knee surgery at his Florida compound, players are lining up to take advantage of his absence. Chief among them are Garcia, who won The Players Championship and then spent two weeks resting in his native Spain, and Phil Mickelson, winner last week at Colonial.

``I feel like every part of my game is getting better every week,'' a refreshed Garcia said. ``I definitely feel like if nothing weird happens I should be up there and at least should have a chance at winning this tournament.''

And he means a decidedly better shot at winning than he had seven years ago.

Like many of the world's best players, Mickelson is gearing up for the U.S. Open in two weeks at Torrey Pines. But he also knows that the Memorial might provide perfect preparation for the deep rough and fast greens in SoCal.

``I'm excited about how I'm starting to play and I want to continue that momentum,'' he said. ``This will be the last tournament I play before the U.S. Open and after this event I'll get home and start practice at Torrey to get ready for that. But certainly, although the U.S. Open is on my mind, I would like to play well this week.''

Mickelson won at Colonial with a remarkable trouble-skirting birdie on the final hole but it was his short game which separated him from the pack. He was 9-for-9 in sand saves and made all 14 of his putts from 5 feet or less.

But it's Mickelson and Garcia's mental approach that most impresses Nicklaus.

``Phil played last week and won, and that's a good win for him. It gives him a lot of confidence,'' Nicklaus said. ``Sergio came off the Players Championship and that will give him a lot of confidence. I always said winning breeds winning.''

There are still plenty of other candidates to collect the $1,080,000 first-place check on Sunday.

Defending champion K.J. Choi isn't ready to step aside after closing with a 7-under-par 65 a year ago at the Memorial to beat Ryan Moore (who had a final-round 66) by a shot.

``I know this course because I've won on it,'' the South Korean said through an interpreter. ``I know where you have to hit it and I know where you shouldn't hit it. That gives me an advantage.''

Another player buoyed by a recent victory - his first in four years on the PGA Tour - is Japan's Ryuji Imada, winner of the AT&T Classic two weeks ago. He has finally learned to not be awed by his fellow players.

``I feel a lot more comfortable out here. I know the guys well,'' he said. ``It doesn't affect me as much as it used to playing with the bigger names that I grew up watching.''

Although Woods is absent, nine former Memorial winners are in the field, including Jim Furyk, Ernie Els and two-time winner Kenny Perry, who lost to Imada at the AT&T when he hit into the water on the first playoff hole.

Perry, who won the Memorial in 1991 and 2003, looks at the trip to suburban Columbus as almost an annuity.

``I just always feel like when I come here I've got a great shot at winning,'' he said.

So does just about everybody else.

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