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SPORTS WEEKEND | GOLF

Valencia Not Up Some Pros' Alley

January 16, 1998|THOMAS BONK

PALM DESERT — Shortly after he won the Nissan Open at Riviera last year, Nick Faldo was asked about defending his title in 1998 . . . at Valencia.

Faldo laughed and started singing "Valencia!, Valencia!"

Actually, that's probably pretty close to the reaction that next month's Nissan Open is getting in its one-time stop at Valencia Country Club, which is about 35 miles from downtown Los Angeles and a very long way from Hogan's Alley.

The Nissan Open made the drive from Riviera at Pacific Palisades and into the Santa Clarita Valley because the U.S. Senior Open will be held at Riviera in July and the club won't allow two pro events on its hallowed course in the same year. The Nissan Open will be back at Riviera in 1999.

But the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce, which runs the event, was forced to go on a yearlong search for a new venue. Valencia was the choice, although Pelican Hill, Calabasas, Los Angeles Country Club and Wilshire were contacted.

What effect switching from Riviera to Valencia will have on the field is going to be interesting. The Nissan Open is traditionally the last event on the West Coast part of the tour because Riviera is considered strong enough to keep many of the top players here before traveling to Florida.

Craig Stadler expects many top players to skip Valencia.

"And that's unfortunate," he said.

Stewart Cink, last year's PGA Tour rookie of the year, didn't commit to play the Nissan Open because it isn't at Riviera. How many do the same thing as Cink remains to be seen.

Those committed to play Valencia include Faldo, Stadler, Steve Elkington, Payne Stewart, John Cook, Steve Jones and Duffy Waldorf. Players who haven't committed, at least not yet, include Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard.

Tom Pulchinski of the Junior Chamber said Waldorf, who is a member at Valencia, has been busy lobbying for the venue. Also, the Nissan Open purse is up to $2.1 million, the club has a new clubhouse, it's a dynamic community and there's plenty of room for parking and corporate tents.

"Our indications are we're going to get as good a field as we might have at Riviera," Pulchinski said.

WATCH THESE GUYS

While the story lines this year on the PGA Tour might follow something like this--Woods winning the Masters by 20 shots, or John Daly quitting in July to concentrate on the new Olympic sport called driver-throwing or Greg Norman cutting his hair--there are a few other compelling plot lines to follow.

So in the interest of current events, here are five players to watch in 1998.

1. Mickelson.

He's 27, has won 12 times and has had to listen while guys like Woods, Leonard, Ernie Els and even David Duval get hailed as the "young" guns.

But Woods, Leonard and Els have something Mickelson does not--a major title--and with two majors on the West Coast this year (the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco and the PGA at Sahalee near Seattle), you'd have to say Mickelson has a shot at his first big title.

2. Corey Pavin.

Wasn't it only three years ago that he won the U.S. Open? In 1997, Pavin had the worst year in his 14-year professional career--11 missed cuts, one top-25 finish and No. 169 on the money list.

Not only did he have to answer constant questions about his slump, he had to field questions whether his change of clubs had caused it. He said it hadn't. He hasn't played well in nearly two years, but if he can start getting the ball close and making putts, he'll be back soon.

3. Jim Gallagher Jr.

In 1995, he won twice to earn a three-year exemption, which ends at the end of the year. That means Gallagher needs to finish in the top 125 on the money list or win a tournament to keep his card.

He missed 14 cuts in 28 events in 1997, but because he has a good track record--twice over $1 million in yearly earnings and a clinching victory in the 1993 Ryder Cup--he has a chance to turn it around.

4. Tommy Tolles.

At 31, he's still regarded as one of the tour's "kids," probably because he has played the Tour for only three years. If nothing else and no matter his age, Tolles is one of the most consistent players out there--25 events, 22 cuts made, $825,793 in winnings.

What he hasn't done is win (although he did finish third at the Masters). Chances are, that's going to change, even though his Flat Rock, N.C., upbringing isn't. Said Tolles of his tiny hometown: "You can count the stoplights on one fist."

5. Robert Damron.

This unheralded 25-year-old from Orlando, Fla., made the most of his rookie year, finishing 53rd on the money list with $455,604 and tied for third at the Buick Classic. Even though he played only four Nike Tour events before making it through PGA Tour qualifying school for 1997, Damron is obviously a quick learner.

His family moved from Kentucky to Orlando after his dad retired from the coal business. At Bay Hill, he met Arnold Palmer, who gave him some early advice and helped get him a sponsor's exemption into last year's Bob Hope.

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