Most of world's best not at Doral

Updated: March 5, 2003, 4:46 PM ET

MIAMI -- The Ford Championship at Doral used to boast one of the strongest fields on the PGA Tour, but this year's event will be noticeably lacking in star power.

Despite a $5 million purse, the top players have stayed away in droves. For the first time, the tournament -- which starts Thursday -- won't even have a defending champion because Ernie Els could not resist the lure of a huge appearance fee to play in the European tour's Dubai Desert Classic.

Tiger Woods also was scheduled to play in Dubai, and even though he pulled out due to security concerns, he will have the week off.

And the late withdrawals of Phil Mickelson, whose wife is expecting a baby, and the injured Vijay Singh leaves world No. 6 David Toms as the top ranked player at the Doral Resort's "Blue Monster."

But the event picked up one big name when European Ryder Cup hero Colin Montgomerie decided he would rather play at Doral than travel to the Middle East for Dubai and next week's Qatar Masters.

He said he was more worried about security in Qatar than Dubai, deciding it was too far to go for just one week.

"Qatar is a big U.S. Air Force base," Montgomerie said. "There's a course that carries my name in Dubai. I love the place, but maybe this year wasn't the time to go.

"I was in America and had the option of playing here and next week, and I took that option instead. I'd like to try to compete a little more here in the years to come, so I thought why not take the opportunity to do this."

Montgomerie even may play on the PGA Tour all the way through next month's Masters. He plans to participate in up to a dozen tournaments in the United States this year, more than ever before. That's a stark turnaround from 12 months ago, when he stormed home in a huff after being eliminated in the first round of the Match Play Championship, vowing never to return after claiming he was heckled.

Montgomerie believes his brilliant performance at last year's Ryder Cup, where he was the spiritual leader of the European team and went unbeaten in five matches, has helped his reputation with American golf fans.

Whether that is fact or fiction is debatable, but it doesn't really matter because sometimes it's perception that counts and Montgomerie now perceives he is more popular on this side of the Atlantic.

"I think people tend to respect me and my game a little bit more after the Ryder Cup this time around," he said. "It seems to be very friendly and very open. This country has changed a little since September 11. I think people are more courteous now."

Montgomerie, 39, won the European Tour Order of Merit a record seven years in a row from 1993-99. But last year, he finished a relatively disappointing fourth.

He also has started 2003 slowly, missing the cut at the Nissan Open two weeks ago before being eliminated in the first round of last week's Match Play Championship. But the Scotsman is still a major draw wherever he plays.

Montgomerie's world ranking has slipped to 15th and his goal is to get it back in the top 10 sooner rather than later.

While Woods, Els and Co. are missing this week, there is no such thing as a weak field on the PGA Tour. The presence of the likes of 2003 leading money-winner Mike Weir, Pebble Beach champion David Love and the ever-consistent Jim Furyk is evidence.

And some of the golden oldies also are making rare appearances on tour, including Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange and Nick Faldo -- not that the still-competitive Faldo would appreciate being lumped into the same category as Nicklaus and Strange.