SOTOGRANDE, Spain (AP) _ Coming off a tie for third in the Tour Championship, Ernie Els decided to go to his home in Florida before flying to Spain.

That proved costly _ not because of the trip, but the luggage he tried to lift.

Els aggravated an old back injury, and had to withdraw after playing nine holes Thursday in the American Express Championship.

``I helped a guy with his luggage Sunday night when we went back to Orlando, and it was the worst thing I could have done,'' said Els, ranked No. 2 in the world.

He first injured his back during the 1998 Buick Classic, the week before the U.S. Open, and said the injury is not nearly as serious this time.

He planned to fly to his other home in London on Tuesday to get his back worked on, and hoped to be fit enough to play in the Johnnie Walker Classic next week in Thailand.

``If it is ready, I'm going to Bangkok,'' Els said. ``If not, I'm going to have to withdraw. I don't want to play when I can't play well.''

Els said Tom Boers, a back specialist for several PGA Tour players, advised him not to make the trip to Spain. Els didn't practice Tuesday, and played only nine holes Wednesday. He was 1 under until he could no longer hit long irons, and he bogeyed the last three holes.

His absence means six of the top 10 in the world rankings are not at Valderrama. Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Davis Love III, Hal Sutton and Tom Lehman were among a dozen Americans who decided not to play.

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CALLING HIS SHOT: Carlos Franco was disgusted with his approach into the 18th green, a simple iron shot that he pulled some 60 feet left of the pin.

Making matters worse, his playing partner had to go back to the tee, so Franco sat behind the 18th green as the twosome behind him played through.

He told Scott Hoch, ``I hit bad iron shot, so now I make the putt.''

As Hoch left the scoring tent, he heard a huge roar _ Franco holed the birdie putt.

``I told you,'' Franco said with a wink.

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SOLO ORR: Scotland's Gary Orr was the odd man out in the 55-player field and teed off by himself early Thursday at Valderrama. There were 27 twosomes.

Orr was virtually alone on the first tee _ with four spectators and a few officials holding up ``Quiet Please'' signs _ as he began his chase for a $1 million top prize. He shot a 71.

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TIGER EXPERIENCE: Even though he lost his match, Andrew Coltart believes going up against Tiger Woods in the Ryder Cup was a good experience.

``Just being in that kind of arena, and still being able to play a reasonable game of golf against the world's No. 1, and not being intimidated by either him or the arena,'' said Coltart, who had a 67 on Thursday.

Woods won, 3 and 2, although there was controversy when fans apparently misled Coltart away from his ball in the rough, and he had to play a lost ball.

``There will never, ever be another atmosphere like that one, and I was still able to play my golf,'' he said. ``Whatever I encounter from now on, I should be able to get on with it.''

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RECORD SEVEN: Englishman Lee Westwood has four reasons for wanting to win the final European event of the season. A victory could bring him the season money title. He also would pick up a $1 million check and notch a win over a world-class field that includes Tiger Woods.

A victory also would be his seventh this season on the European tour, breaking the record of six he shares with Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie.

Asked which would mean more to him, winning the World Golf Championships event or the Order of Merit, the Englishman chose the former.

``Because that means I would have won the Order of Merit,'' he said.

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NICE WARMUP: Tiger Woods is sensational even in practice.

Tuning up with Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke in a practice round Wednesday, Woods holed three straight shots at Valderrama.

Woods began his hat trick with a 110-yard eagle on the third hole. Next, the 24-year-old player walked down the fairway and asked his caddie to toss a ball into a greenside bunker. Exploding a wedge from the sand, he dropped that shot, too.

Not yet satisfied, he repeated the bunker shot with the same effect.

``I've never seen anything like it,'' said Clarke's caddie, Billy Foster.

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DIVOTS: Andrew Coltart has more than a passing interest in the European money race. His sister is married to Lee Westwood, who is chasing Darren Clarke for the Order of Merit. ... Of the 17 Americans in the field, only Chris DiMarco (74) and Dennis Paulson (75) were over par. ... Because the field is paired after each round, Tiger Woods will play with Vijay Singh in the second round. It's the third time in four weeks they have played together. Woods beat him in the Presidents Cup, 2 and 1, and outplayed him in the final round of the Tour Championship last week. ... A British reporter remarked to Scott Hoch that most of the good Americans stayed home, but that he appeared to be making the most of his trip. ``I've never been lumped in with a bunch of 'good Americans,' but thanks, anyway,'' Hoch replied.