SOTOGRANDE, Spain (AP) - Sergio Garcia leads a strong Spanish contingent intent on a Valderrama victory at this weekend's Andalucia Masters, where defending champion Graeme McDowell heads the challengers.
Garcia, coming off an 11-shot Castello Masters win for his first victory in three years, is among 14 Spanish players looking for a first ever home triumph since Spain's most famous golf course began hosting tournaments 23 years ago.
Miguel Angel Jimenez, Jose Maria Olazabal, Alvaro Quiros, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Garcia lead the local contenders' bid to triumph at the Robert Trent Jones designed course. Martin Kaymer, Thomas Bjorn, Matteo Manassero and Italian brothers Edoardo and Francesco Molinari will also compete at the 96-player, €3 million ($4.17 million) event.
Since 1988, when the Volvo Masters was first held, there have been 20 European Tour events at Valderrama but not one Spanish winner.
"I've been three times runner-up on this course, and that really spurs me to try harder," Garcia said. "It's been really positive recently, after two really bad years. I've had great feelings and at the end of the day the most important thing is what I feel. I've been putting really well since before the U.S. Open, I like the consistency I'm achieving now.
"I think I am going the right way but that doesn't mean that it's time to relax."
Valderrama's cork tree-lined, par-71 course offers tight fairways and small greens that test a golfer's game from tee to green, especially rewarding those who show patience and accuracy.
These characteristics suited McDowell on his way to a 2-shot victory last year, which was the Northern Irishman's last European win. The former U.S. Open champion is keen on a first 2011 title to improve his Race to Dubai position at the European Tour's last continental event before moving on to Asia.
"It's one of those iconic courses on the European Tour, and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it," McDowell said. "There are holes you can consider being decent birdie chances, and when the wind is up, well, good luck.
"But I like that challenge."
Kaymer was second here in 2008 and the German player is looking for his first victory since January to put pressure on Dubai leader Luke Donald.
Bjorn has won three tournaments this season while Manassero's first win came in Spain last year.
South African player Thomas Aiken will also be expected to challenge for the €500,000 ($695,450) winner's cheque after his Spanish Open victory earlier this year, coupled with top-10 finishes in Madrid and Castellon.
Valderrama gained fame in 1997 when former Spanish great Seve Ballesteros captained Europe to Ryder Cup victory. Ballesteros died in May from cancer.