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Tampa Bay waiting for classic field

Despite the absence of stars, this week's Tampa Bay Classic hosts a promising field while building for the future.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


PALM HARBOR -- The resort is 15 minutes from his Clearwater home, one of his favorite courses where he has an advantage. As a professional golfer who spends much of his time on the road, getting to sleep in his own bed during a tournament is a bonus.

John Huston made the most of the opportunity last year at the inaugural Tampa Bay Classic, where a final-round 6-under-par 65 at the Westin Innisbrook Resort's Copperhead course propelled the long-time Tampa Bay area resident to his sixth PGA Tour win.

So why isn't Huston looking forward to this week's event?

He's not playing.

"I would, given the choice," Huston said. "I love Innisbrook. And staying home is a big plus for me."

Instead, Huston will be in St. Louis for the American Express Championship, a World Golf Championship event that invited the top 50 in the world ranking and various money list leaders from around the world.

Since Huston qualified for the World Golf event, which offers a $5-million purse and $1-million to the winner, PGA Tour rules prevent him from playing in his hometown event.

Such is the plight of the fledgling tournament, which has a $2.5-million purse, tape-delayed coverage and likely searing heat. There will be no Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or David Duval. But that is what so-called "opposite" events must endure. The Tampa Bay Classic Presented By Buick is one of six such tournaments this year on the schedule. Each of the opposites must get along without many marquee names or network coverage.

Last year the tournament was played the same week as the Presidents Cup. This year and in 2002 it will be played in September, opposite the WGC-American Express.

"I revert back to the fact that when we lost our sponsor for our other tournament (JCPenney Classic), there were some things we had to do to keep professional golf in this community," tournament director Gerald Goodman said. "We're not going to get the top 10 players this year or next year. But we anticipate a good future with the new dates."

Goodman refers to 2003, when the tournament will be played in late October, the week before the season-ending Tour Championship and without PGA Tour competition. The move is a result of the tour's recently-concluded television negotiations. The proposed name for the event is the Buick Championship, giving the automaker four events on tour and a good possibility that many of the top names will play.

None of it would have been possible if Suncoast Golf Classic Inc., the non-profit organization that runs the tournament, had not taken a chance by electing to be an opposite event after JCPenney Co. dropped its sponsorship of the former mixed-team event.

Tournaments such as Tucson (opposite the Mercedes Championships), the B.C. Open (British Open), Reno-Tahoe Open (WGC-NEC Invitational), Texas Open (Ryder Cup) and the Southern Farm Bureau Classic (Tour Championship) are faced with the prospect every year. And because of Buick's proposed move to the Tampa Bay event, the Buick Challenge played in Pine Mountain, Ga., faces having to find a new sponsor and perhaps being an opposite event.

It has been suggested there are too many PGA Tour events, that tournaments such as the Tampa Bay Classic are overkill. This year there are 49 official events played over 45 weeks. To play 30 is considered a lot; most players compete in 20-25. Why so many?

"I think it's a positive sign that we don't have any gaps in our schedule," said Ana Leaird, the director of public relations and media operations for the PGA Tour. "It's very healthy and a solid sign of how well the tour is doing.

"We're always looking to make sure that all of our members have as many opportunities to play. If someone wants to step up and host an event, we'd be remiss in not exploring the possibility of trying to do that."

For now, the Tampa Bay Classic must be patient.

None of the top 50 will be here, but the tournament has significant names in the 156-player field, including major championship winners Ben Crenshaw, Mark O'Meara and John Daly, along with a slew of future stars including Charles Howell, Bryce Molder, Matt Kuchar and Ty Tryon.

It won't be on network television, but the Golf Channel will tape-delay the broadcast. In two years ABC-TV takes over. And although September will be steamy, the players who generally have lauded the Copperhead course can look forward to a cooler late October date, with all kinds of season-ending perks on the line.

"It all came together pretty quick," Goodman said. "Somebody tagged us the biggest winner of the new (PGA Tour) television negotiations contract (which begins in 2003). We think we're a huge winner with our dates. And what has happened is our existing sponsors are excited about '03 and beyond, which is good for the tournament."

Tampa Bay Classic

WHAT: A 72-hole official PGA Tour stroke-play event sponsored by Buick with 156 players.

WHEN: Thursday-Sunday.

WHERE: Westin Innisbrook Resort, Palm Harbor.

COURSE: Copperhead, par 71.

PURSE: $2.5-million, $450,000 to the winner.

TICKETS: $20 daily in advance, $30 at the gate. A weekly badge is available for $50 in advance, $60 at the gate. Children 17 and under are admitted free with a paid adult. Tickets also may be purchased through the tournament charities, Ticketmaster -- (727) 898-2100 or (813) 287-8844, www.ticketmaster.com -- and the Tampa Bay Classic tournament office (727) 942-5566.

PARKING: $5, located off Klosterman Road, north of the resort, west of U.S. 19. From Tarpon Springs, take U.S. 19 south to Klosterman, turn right. From Clearwater, take U.S. 19 north to Klosterman, turn left. The parking lots are adjacent to the course beneath the power lines. Extra parking will be available beginning Saturday at the St. Petersburg College campus off Klosterman road.

TV: 8-10:30 p.m., Golf Channel (taped).

OTHER EVENTS: Monday's pro-am is on the Copperhead course at 12:45 p.m., along with practice rounds. Tuesday's pro-am is on the Island course at 7:45 a.m. Practice rounds continue Tuesday at Copperhead, along with the Celebrity Skins Challenge at 3 p.m. Wednesday's pro-am is on Copperhead, with morning and afternoon shotgun starts. The tournament begins Thursday. A junior clinic is approximately 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

INFORMATION: Call (727) 942-5566 or visit the tournament's Web site at www.tampabayclassic.com. -- Compiled by Bob Harig.

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