SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Harding Park was nothing like the public course Tiger Woods remembered as a kid.

Some of the differences were obvious, such as the cone-shaped corporate tents, the grandstands erected behind the greens and tee boxes, and large crowds that gathered along the shores of Lake Merced during practice rounds for the first PGA Tour event in San Francisco in 36 years. The biggest change?

“It used to be basically a clover field out here,” said Woods, who occasionally played Harding Park when he was in junior high school. “It’s just hard to believe what they’ve done here.”

Harding Park is getting most of the attention in the days leading up to the American Express Championship, where even the best players in the world seem to be merely props. It will be the first time a World Golf Championship is played on a municipal golf course. No one is quite sure what to expect, not surprising since most of these players weren’t even born when Harding Park last hosted a PGA Tour event in 1969.

at the San Francisco Open Invitational.

“It’s impressive,” Justin Leonard said after his first trip around the tree-lined course. “I don’t look at this course and say that it’s easy. But then, maybe I’m not playing that well.”

Sean O’Hair, the 23-year-old rookie, was a few spots away on the practice range pounding tee shots into the blue horizon. But this isn’t only about length. After a few minutes, O’Hair stuck his umbrella into the turf about five paces in front of him, then hit a series of fades and draws around it.

“Just working on shaping the ball,” he said.

Woods says the greens are so pure that without any wind, the winning score could be around 20 under on a par-70 course that measures 7,086 yards. Then again, he wasn’t at Harding Park on Monday afternoon, when Kenny Perry bundled up in a sweater as gusts approached 20 mph.

Some answers should be available Thursday when the American Express Championship gets under way with 71 players trying to capture the final WGC event of the year.

Among the missing are Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, ranked Nos. 4 and 5 in the world. Els is the defending champion, but he has been out since August after knee surgery. Goosen withdrew earlier this week with a sore groin.

A year ago, Els captured his first WGC event by outlasting Thomas Bjorn in a well-played duel at Mount Juliet in Ireland. Woods, who already has won this tournament three times, had back spasms most of the week and did well to tie for ninth. Then, he headed off to Barbados and got married.

Woods returns this week having recovered from a rib injury that caused pain in his lower back at the Presidents Cup. He worked with his trainer in Las Vegas last week and said he was fine.

The world’s No. 1 player has only three tournaments left – the American Express, the Funai Classic at Disney in two weeks, followed by the season-ending Tour Championship. Woods already has won five times this year and captured two more majors. He leads all the important categories (victories, money list, scoring average) and would seem to be a lock for the PGA Tour’s player of the year.

Still, the American Express usually shapes the final month of the season, and this one is no different.

Vijay Singh has four victories and is just over $1 million behind Woods on the money list, a figure that doesn’t seem to be out of reach considering that he likely will play one more tournament than Woods, and that two of those events pay more than $1 million to the winner.

Woods, meantime, has an outside chance to break the money record of $10.9 million that Singh set last year, although it won’t be easy. He would have to win twice and finish in the top 10 in the other.

“I’d much rather keep having the highest total for wins,” Woods said. “If I keep doing that, things will be all right.”

PGA champion Phil Mickelson can’t win the money title unless he plays every week the rest of the year and wins, which is unlikely. But he also has four victories, and another one this year would be the most for him in one season.

For Colin Montgomerie, it’s another chance to earn his first PGA Tour victory. Montgomerie has renewed hope, having won the Dunhill Links Championship last week in Scotland, which sent him to No. 16 in the world and put him second behind U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell on the European tour money list.

Then again, Europeans don’t seem to fare well at these World Golf Championships.

Darren Clarke (00 Match Play, 03 NEC Invitational) is the only European to win an official WGC event, and Els joins him as the only European tour members to have captured one.

And while these events were designed to bring together the best in the world, there is always a collection of players no one recognizes without looking at the names on their bags. One of them is Euan Walters, who got his PGA Tour card at Q-school last year and has made only one cut in his rookie season. Walter qualified by finishing in the top 3 on the Australasian tour last winter.

The biggest unknown is Harding Park, and what kind of test it will provide.

AP-ES-10-05-05 1258EDT

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