Four of the top players in the game

Associated Press Published:

Four of the top players in the game _ Tiger Woods (21), Ernie Els (27), Justin Leonard (25) and defending champion Phil Mickelson (27) _ are among the focal points starting in today's opening round at Firestone Country Club's South Course.

Woods, making his first appearance ever in the World Series, was met by a huge gallery when he teed off at 7 a.m. Wednesday in the pro-am. The Masters champion, admittedly tired and fighting a sore ankle, said the youth of today's PGA Tour players might be bringing out youngsters who might not otherwise have been attracted to the game.

"We are seeing people from all walks of life on the golf course," Woods said later. "And now kids think, you know, golf might be actually a cool sport to play."

In addition to Woods' win at Augusta, Els took his second U.S. Open in June and Leonard captured his first major when he won the British Open in July. Davis Love III, no codger at 33, wrapped up the last of the Grand Slam events Sunday when he took the PGA Championship.

All will be on hand for the World Series.

"It is really good for golf to have the young players win the majors, to show the older guys and show the world that the younger guys aren't scared of winning the big ones," Els said.

Woods didn't turn pro until after Mickelson won the 1996 World Series by three strokes. Since then, Woods has captured six pro tournaments including The Masters and also captured the imagination of a lot of younger fans.

Every ticket was sold for this year's World Series, the first time that has happened in its 36 years. Woods should get a cut of the gate.

"It's very flattering," Woods said. "I honestly never thought I would receive this much attention this early. I thought the earliest would be in my late 20s, early 30s, after I have won some majors and really had deserved the attention.

"I thought it would take something like what (Jack) Nicklaus had done early in his career _ winning a lot and a lot of majors _ to get to this level of attention from the people, from the fans, the media, basically everyone."

Mickelson said just as the winners have gotten younger, so have the galleries.

"It is amazing how many kids are out here," Mickelson said. "It is just exciting to see other people taking an interest in the game."

The 72-hole tournament is open only to winners of events around the world, with a 46-man field playing for a $2.2 million purse.

Leonard said he gets more mail now than before his victory at Troon in the British Open. But he said the headaches of his newfound fame are minor compared to the benefits.

"If you ever hear me complain about coming in here," he said, referring to the interview area, "or signing autographs or anything, just hit me. Please."

The winner of the World Series collects $396,000 from a $2.2 million purse. The winner also earns a 10-year PGA Tour exemption.

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