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SPORTS WEEKEND | GOLF

Exclusion Is Way of the World Tour

March 03, 2000|MIKE JAMES

By most accounts, the first event of the World Golf Championships--the Andersen Consulting Match Play at La Costa--was a huge success. Great field, good TV ratings, high-profile weekend pairings, a fitting climax to an improved West Coast swing on the PGA Tour.

But, in its second year, there remain questions about the elite tour within a tour and its place in men's professional golf.

Most players say they like the idea of competing in a limited field of the best golfers in the world. They also don't mind playing for a $1-million winner's check and a guarantee of at least $25,000 for showing up. Among the top 64 players in the official world ranking who qualified for La Costa, only one, Jumbo Ozaki, did not play.

With Tiger Woods, who lost to Darren Clarke in the final, playing on the weekend, ABC's ratings skyrocketed from the inaugural event a year ago. On Saturday, the telecast got a 3.9 national rating and 10 share, up 77% from '99; on Sunday, it got a 5.0 and 12, up 39%.

The world's six major tour governing bodies--the PGA Tour and those of Europe, Australasia, Southern Africa, Japan and Asia--are still tinkering with the schedule of the four world championship events, trying to find spots that work best. There have been some glitches.

Last year, David Duval declined to play in the WGC-American Express Championship in Spain, in part because it was scheduled the week after the Tour Championship, the traditional ending to the regular PGA Tour season. Mark O'Meara, Greg Norman and Fred Couples also skipped it. The tournament will be played in Spain--at the same time, again this year--but next year will be switched to September in the United States.

"I know American Express wanted to have a year-end event, but it's much better for everyone to move it up," Davis Love III said.

Whether that timing will be suitable for some international players, however, isn't yet known.

It also could create a problem for whichever regular PGA Tour event it goes up against, effectively taking the top 60-65 players in the world out of that field. That's something the Tucson Open, which coincides with the Match Play, and the Reno/Tahoe Open, which coincides with the NEC Invitational in August, already face.

Also next year, the match-play event will be slotted at the beginning of the year, in January at Melbourne, Australia. It will be played the week before the Mercedes Championships in Hawaii.

"I think they might really have a problem with the Match Play next year," Scott Hoch said. "I know I'm not that interested in traveling all over now. That's going to be a tough sell."

Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie already have indicated they don't plan to play.

The final WGC event this year is the EMC World Cup in Argentina in December, two-man teams from 24 countries in match play. Unlike the three other events, the prize money is unofficial, and from the U.S. viewers' standpoint, the only way that event is going to register a blip is if Woods is playing. He hasn't said he will.

"The money makes [WGC events] special," Hoch said. "But you can't buy prestige. They're just too young to be considered really big. They still rank well below the majors or the Tour Players Championship."

MARTIN UPDATE

The Tucson Open is to the Match Play Championship as the NIT is to the NCAA tournament, the also-rans battling for No. 65. But even in a weakened field last weekend, Casey Martin continued to show promise.

Martin, playing in his fifth tour event this season, finished tied for 17th and earned $37,950 with four subpar rounds. It was his best finish and close to being much better.

"I had a bad final eight holes, three over, and I was very disappointed to finish like that," Martin said. "But I had a better week and am starting to get some confidence.

"I knew the course, had played it in college, and wanted to play well. I almost really did it. Of course, it helps when the 64 best players in the world aren't there."

Had Martin played the final eight holes in one under, the worst he had done in that stretch in any of the first three rounds, he would have finished tied for third and made more than $100,000.

"I'm learning, trying to relax and settle down," Martin said of his first year on the PGA Tour. "Those last eight holes, I kind of went for the pin and got burned a couple of times. I got caught up in the moment and got overconfident."

Martin is third on the tour in driving distance at 285.4 yards and fourth in overall driving but 127th in putting.

"I've hit the ball really well this year and worked on that in the off-season. I'm making more of a point of putting the ball in the fairway," he said. "But I haven't been very sharp on my short game."

Still no word from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on the tour's effort to overturn the ruling that allows Martin to continue playing with a cart. Martin sued the tour in 1997, seeking to ride a cart because of a circulatory disorder.

STREAK BUSTERS

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