Atlanta's east lake Golf Club is a study in contrasts. Flapping flags punctuate its silky greens, but razor wire tops the fence at a body shop on nearby Memorial Drive. The Tudor clubhouse, lovingly restored, is just three blocks from a two-door Pontiac, stripped and abandoned. The canopy of the urban forest shades both the attractive ranch houses on the course's western boundary and the ramshackle bungalows that served as drug houses when the once frightening neighborhood earned its nickname, Little Vietnam.
So it was only mildly hallucinatory last week when luxury cars packed the 'hood and 30 of the world's best golfers showed up to compete for $4 million in prize money. As the centerpiece of one of the nation's most unusual urban renewal projects, East Lake was just serving up its latest miracle.
The Tour Championship is the PGA Tour's richest tournament and, some would say, its crassest. It started in 1987 as the Nabisco Championships of Golf, and the Tour's commissioner at the time, Deane Beman, expected it to achieve the hallowed status of a major. Instead, his season-ender has become an autumnal rite in which the pagan traditions of Halloween and Easter are joined in what amounts to a rich man's Easter-egg hunt. This year's winner, Hal Sutton, earned $720,000, while the last-place finisher, Nick Price, collected $64,000—which is roughly $4,000 for every stroke he finished over par.
The Tour Championship has also been the tape stretched across the finish line for players chasing season honors. At East Lake, David Duval won the money tide, topping Vijay Singh by a score of $2,591,031 to $2,238,998. John Huston finished first in the unremunerative and meaningless all-around statistical category, while Duval squeaked by Tiger Woods for the Vardon Trophy, which goes to the player with the lowest scoring average. (Woods wore a Darnell Hillman-style Afro wig when he teed off last Saturday morning—not wanting to be taken, apparently, for the fellow who was 11 over par after two rounds. He finished with a pair of one-under 69s, but Duval shot a 31 on his final nine and won the Vardon, 69.13 to 69-21.)
So ends the Tour Championship as we have come to know it. Next year it will be a mere warmup for the World Championship Stroke Play, at Valderrama, in Spain, one of three new megatournaments being staged jointly by the world's five major tours. The Stroke Play, scheduled for the week after the Tour Championship, will pay a million dollars to its winner, and all prize money and stats will be considered official on the PGA Tour. How fitting, then, that the Tour plunked this Tour Championship—an event destined for an identity crisis—into a neighborhood struggling to reinvent itself.
East Lake's story is the more compelling of the two. The course was designed in 1913 by the legendary Donald Ross and made famous in the 1920s through the exploits of its best player, a young amateur by the name of Bobby Jones. By the early '70s, though, the club was in decline. A low-income, public-housing project, East Lake Meadows, went up across the street from the 4th fairway, and that frightened away the prosperous Atlantans, who took their golf dollars to the Atlanta Athletic Club, Atlanta Country Club and other suburban shelters. In the early '90s embattled East Lake boarded up its clubhouse and sold memberships for as little as $300 a year.
Enter Tom Cousins, an Atlanta developer with the curious notion that golf could be an engine for neighborhood revitalization. In the mid-'90s Cousins acquired the East Lake course and donated it to the nonprofit East Lake Community Foundation. He then enticed the leaders of 40 U.S. companies to buy $50,000 corporate memberships, using the proceeds and money from his family's trust to restore the course and clubhouse to their former glory. In addition, each corporation donated $200,000 to the foundation to assist with neighborhood revitalization. In the last two years 75% of the dilapidated Meadows project has been demolished and replaced by a gated, mixed-income development called East Lake Villages. The foundation is also building an 18-hole executive course and a practice facility for the East Lake Junior Golf Academy, which provides a five-days-a-week after-school program for neighborhood children. "As wild as the idea seemed, it appears it's going to work," Cousins says. "These kids see a future now, instead of wondering if they're going to be shot in a drug raid."
The Tour's involvement was fortuitous, but timely. East Lake caught the eye of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem through his work with The First Tee, a World Golf Foundation program that takes the game to youngsters from low-income and minority families. Finchem made Cousins a stunning offer: to hold the '98 Tour Championship at East Lake with The First Tee and the East Lake foundation splitting the profits.
The result was last week's meeting of pros and program. "It's fabulous," said Fred Couples, dazzled by East Lake's fast greens, white-sand bunkers and thick bermuda rough. "It's inspiring," echoed Steve Strieker, referring to more than the golf course. "It shows the world what this area has done and what other cities can do."
With so much talk of renewal and reinvention, it figured that some player would offer himself as poster boy for the cause. That someone turned out to be Hal Sutton, a 40-year-old, square-jawed Louisianan with a rebuilt swing, a revamped psyche, and a marriage jones (he is on his fourth). The 1980 U.S. Amateur champion, Sutton found instant success as a pro, winning a PGA Championship and six other Tour events between 1982 and '86, leading the money list in '83 and playing on two Ryder Cup teams. His game then took a dive that saw him go eight years without a win. "I went through a situation where I was not living up to everybody else's expectations," he says. "So I started to make changes."