Australia's Bob Shearer will have to overcome one of the strongest fields of the season when he sets out to defend his title at the Bovis Lend Lease European Senior Masters which is played over the Duke's Course at Woburn G & CC this week.
Shearer was in devastating form when he won last year's title but but he will have to be at his very best to fend off a field that includes Neil Coles, Eamonn Darcy, Seiji Ebihara, Bernard Gallacher, Tony Jacklin, Christy O'Connor Jnr and Manuel Piñero.
Twelve months ago, Shearer won his first European Seniors Tour title since 1999 when he closed with a five under par 67 to finish one shot ahead of compatriot Noel Ratcliffe and two in front of an international trio comprising America's Jerry Bruner, New Zealand's Bob Charles and Japan’s Ebihara.
The Australian started his final round with three birdies and finished it with two more but was still made to fight all the way by Ratcliffe who eagled the 514 yard 18th hole with a curling 25 foot putt but still came up one shot short.
Ratcliffe will be a threat again this season but Shearer's biggest challenge may come from Ebihara who has been in irrepressible form for most of the 2002 season.
The Japanese golfer started the season in style when he captured the AIB Irish Seniors Open at Adare Manor Hotel and Golf Resort and has since gone on to win the Wales Seniors Open and the De Vere PGA Seniors Championship as well.
Two other men who could chase him hard are newcomers, Darcy and Piñero.
The two former Ryder Cup stars come to Woburn having each made one previous appearance on the European Seniors Tour. The Spaniard made his debut in the GIN Monte Carlo Invitational whereas Darcy appeared for the first time at the Travis Perkins Senior Masters at Woburn. They will be among no less than 14 former Ryder Cup stars in the field the others being Maurice Bembridge, Neil Coles, Malcolm Gregson, Tommy Horton, Brian Huggett, Tony Jacklin, Christy O'Connor Jnr, Eddie Polland, Peter Townsend, Brian Waites and Norman Wood.
Coles and Gallacher remain the only two golfers from Great Britain and Ireland to have won on this year's European Seniors Tour but that could change if O'Connor Jnr gets a few more breaks than he has done in his previous six outings.
The Irish Ryder Cup star was plagued by back problems while finishing third behind Ebihara at the AIB Irish Seniors Open. He also came close while finishing tied second at the Wales Seniors Open and third at Senior British Open, presented by MasterCard, and so may be overdue a success.
However, in order to win, O'Connor Jnr will have to buck a trend that has seen eight first-time winners emerge to date this season. That trend started when Englishman Townsend won the Royal Westmoreland Barbados Open and America's Steve Stull emerged victorious at the subsequent Tobago Plantations Senior Classic. Since then, Scotland's Bernard Gallacher, Australia's David Jones. Americans Ray Carrasco and Gary Wintz, and Japan's Noboru Sugai and Dragon Taki have also followed suit, making the old guard peer nervously over their shoulders watching to see who might be the next to emerge.