Golf-Sherwood signals a worthy season for elite field

By Mark Lamport-Stokes THOUSAND OAKS, California, Dec 3 (Reuters) - For the 18 players vying for supremacy at this week's Northwestern Mutual World Challenge in glorious early winter weather, merely qualifying for the field is confirmation of a successful year. Though the four-round tournament hosted by five-times champion Tiger Woods is not a PGA Tour event, it offers official world ranking points and every player competing at Sherwood Country Club this week is ranked in the top 30. "Sherwood is a lovely place to come to, and California this time of the year is a great place to play," England's Lee Westwood told Reuters on Tuesday after an extended practice session in bright sunshine with his swing coach Sean Foley. "There only being 18 players, you know you have to be at the top of the world rankings to play in the event." Asked what he felt was the single best thing about qualifying for the elite 18-man field, Westwood replied: "I think the exclusivity really, that and Sherwood." Jordan Spieth, who won the John Deere Classic in July before capping a sensational debut season by being voted the PGA Tour's Rookie of the Year for 2013, was especially delighted to be making his maiden appearance at the event. The 20-year-old, ranked 22nd in the world, was a late addition to the field after fellow American Brandt Snedeker pulled out as he continues to recover from a leg injury. "I'm very excited," Spieth told reporters while preparing for Thursday's opening round. "I got in by an unfortunate way, I guess. "Obviously, we're wishing the best to Brandt to be healthy. This is actually the second time he's let me into an event. He let me into the (2012) U.S. Open back at Olympic Club, so I owe him a Christmas present. "I was very, very excited to get the call that I was in (the field) here and I needed to get my game ready quickly, because I was a little rusty getting some of it off." Spieth, who recorded nine top-10s starts in 23 starts on the 2013 PGA Tour, has not competed since finishing 17th at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China a month ago. Woods, who beat compatriot Zach Johnson by one shot to win the most recent of his World Challenge titles in 2011, is delighted with the quality of the players assembled at Sherwood this week. "It's the deepest and strongest field that we've had possibly ever," the world number one said. "It's going to be a great week, one that everyone is going to enjoy. I'm really looking forward to it." Woods heads the elite field but will face a strong challenge from players such as Northern Irish world number six Rory McIlroy, seventh-ranked American Matt Kuchar and 10th-ranked Austtralian Jason Day. Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell, who won last year's title by three shots, will be bidding to triumph at Sherwood for a third successive year. The full 18-man field: Woods, McIlroy, Kuchar, Steve Stricker, Day, Jason Dufner, McDowell, Ian Poulter, Dustin Johnson, Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Spieth, Lee Westwood, Bubba Watson, Bill Haas and Hunter Mahan. (Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)