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'Tis the Season for Golfers to Be Jolly--Unofficially

November 23, 1994|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Take a look at the golf calendar and it's pretty clear what day it is. It's payday.

Yes, it's that time of year again. You know, when money hits the golf courses like leaves dropping off the trees and just lies there, waiting for somebody with a rake. Or a nine-iron.

It's that time between the official end of the old season and the official beginning of the new. And a wonderful time it is, all right, steeped, as it is, in the great golfing tradition of the rich getting richer.

Officially, the PGA Tour season ended with the Tour Championship Oct. 30 and doesn't begin again until the Mercedes Championship Jan. 5.

And it used to be that players rested during November and December, getting ready for the long grind ahead, starting in January. Now, they can't afford to rest. There are big-money exhibition tournaments to be played before the year turns. And who cares if the money to be won isn't "official"? It still spends.

Paul Azinger, for instance, is having a busy off-season. He is playing in the $540,000 Skins Game this weekend, and the $650,000 Wendy's Three-Tour Challenge and the $2.1-million Diner's Club next month.

"There is plenty of money to be made this time of year," Azinger said. "You can really rack up the dough in the off-season events, so you probably ought to play 'em."

Apparently, that's sound advice.

Fred Couples, the leader in the clubhouse, has won so much money in three weeks of special events that he needs a financial adviser more than he needs a caddie.

Three weeks ago in Hawaii, he won $180,000. Two weeks ago in Puerto Rico, he won $250,000. Last weekend in Thousand Oaks, he won $150,000.

Notice a trend here? It pays to play and Couples isn't done yet. He still has the Skins Game, the Three-Tour Challenge and the $2.7-million Johnnie Walker Championship left on his unofficial earnings schedule.

Last Sunday was a real busy "unofficial" day, with four special events being played.

At Miyazaki, Japan, Jumbo Ozaki earned $270,000 by winning the $2-million Dunlop Phoenix. At Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Couples and Brad Faxon split $300,000 for winning the $1.1-million Franklin Funds Shark Shootout. At Mexico City, Chris Perry won $100,000 at the Mexican Open. And at Pebble Beach, Robert Gamez won $40,000 at the Pebble Beach Invitational.

On one weekend, $3.9 million was up for grabs on the golf course. Next year at those tournaments, the players' courtesy cars will be Brink's trucks.

The spectacle of millionaires playing for more millions may or may not suit you, the television viewer, but the producers of these events sure hope they do because that is why they are being played.

Certainly, there's nothing wrong with golf as television programming or players making money, neither idea being exactly new. There is a problem, though, with the effect these special events have on the West Coast portion of the PGA Tour.

More and more players are turning their backs on a significant portion of the tour in January and February, instead beginning their golf seasons in March in Florida.

Consider the final leaderboard at last year's $1.2-million Hawaiian Open, won by Davis Love III the second week of January. Finishing behind Love were, in order, Robin Freeman, Brett Ogle, Morris Hatalsky, Tom Lehman, Lennie Clements, Mike Reid, Jay Don Blake, Sean Murphy and Craig Parry.

Presumably, most everybody else was resting after making a killing in November and December. Couples said he simply can't play everywhere, so he has to choose. He chose the lucrative special events.

"I think this is what I'd rather do," he said at the Shark Shootout. "I'd rather play here than a tournament on the West Coast. I still have my favorite (West Coast) tournaments, the Bob Hope, L.A., La Costa if you get in there."

Couples, from Seattle, has been a regular at the Mercedes Championship, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and the Nissan L.A. Open, three of the eight stops on the PGA Tour before it goes to Florida March 2-5 for the Doral-Ryder Open. Couples indicated he will play those three again in 1995 as part of his 22-tournament schedule.

Azinger, who joins Couples, Payne Stewart and Tom Watson in the Skins Game this weekend at Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, doesn't think golf is hurting itself on the West Coast, despite the increasing number of off-season events.

"I personally don't think so," he said. "There's so much golf on TV that it kind of runs into each other a little bit. I think Pebble Beach still holds its own on the West Coast."

Riviera always holds its own as the site of the L.A. Open and it should be especially inviting to players in 1995 because the PGA Championship will be held there Aug. 10-13.

Meanwhile, there's the off-season. There are still more birdies--and money--to be made. Stewart, who had a miserable year on the tour, can make up for it at the Skins Game, even though, he said, playing it is a bit of a sacrifice.

"It makes it very difficult for the guys participating to be able to spend Thanksgiving with their families," he said. "I'm talking about their whole families. Thanksgiving is a very important family tradition in my family."

Still, Stewart has won $760,000 in the six days of the last three Skins Games.

And, after all, making money is another important family tradition for golfers.

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