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Burning a Trail to Firestone

The Tiger Trail leads to Akron, Ohio this week for the World Golf Championships NEC Invitational. Just days removed from successfully defending his PGA Championship title, Woods will try to do the same at the Firestone Country Club.

Competing against the five-time major champion are his fellow 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup Team members, the members of both the recently named 2000 U.S. and International Presidents Cup Teams and the top twelve players from the European Tour's current Order of Merit.

The last of those qualifications has caused quite a stir among European-born players. Last year, members of the 1999 European Ryder Cup Team were invited to Akron. That was expected to be the case in 2000, until the European Tour decided to replace those players with the top twelve on their Order of Merit. The reason -- to try and entice many of Europe's best (who have been playing more tournaments stateside) to compete on their home soil.

The decision to alter the qualification has affected nine players: Jesper Parnevik, Jean Van de Velde, Jarmo Sandelin, Sergio Garcia, Paul Lawrie, Gary Orr, Phillip Price, Paul McGinley and Ian Woosnam.

Parnevik, Van de Velde, Sandelin, Garcia and Lawrie are out. Orr, Price, McGinley and Woosnam are in.

This has infuriated those left on the outside, particularly Parnevik. The Swede announced his decision to quit the European Tour (though he will probably try to rejoin next season to qualify for the Ryder Cup.)

This week, Parnevik will be resting his ailing hip, while Garcia and Van de Velde will be in Nevada for the Reno-Tahoe Open. Lawrie is back home, playing in the Scottish PGA Championship. Sandelin, well, he's probably laying out his wardrobe for his next start.

In all, 37 players are in the NEC field. David Duval is not in attendance, neither is Vijay Singh. For the third time in his last three expected starts, Duval has been forced to withdraw from an event due to his continued battle with back pain. The world's #3 ranked player withdrew prior to The International three weeks ago; as well as last week's PGA Championship.

Singh withdrew Wednesday due to a sprained left forearm. This year's Masters champion made news last week at Valhalla by firing his caddie, Dave Renwick. Renwick, who recently married, looped for Singh for both of his major victories (1998 PGA Championship.)

Last year, Woods defeated Phil Mickelson by a shot to win the NEC. It marked the third consecutive year Mickelson has finished runner-up at this event. After winning the tournament - formerly known as the NEC World Series of Golf - in 1996, the lefty has come up short to Greg Norman in 1997 and David Duval in 1998.

If Mickelson can regain his winning form of '96, he'll garner a paycheck of $1 million - first prize in the $5 million purse. Currently, the three-time 2000 PGA TOUR winner is over $3.5 million behind Woods.

Tiger will be making his 100th career TOUR start (including as an amateur) this week. His first start came at Riviera in 1992. The 16-year-old Woods missed the cut at the Nissan Open. Since then, Woods has missed only two cuts in 85 professional starts. In that time, he's won 22 times and has collected over $18 million in earnings.

This is the second of four WGC events in 2000. Darren Clarke defeated Woods in the finals of the first event, the Andersen Consulting World Match Play Championship. The third event, the American Express Championship (which Tiger will also defend), will be contested in November; with the fourth, the EMC World Cup, taking place in December.