The PGA Tour banished its rank and file to the desert last week for golf's version of the NIT, but a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. The Tucson Open refused to cooperate. The tournament provided the players with a course—Tucson National—that was better groomed than Peter Kessler, a shiny fleet of courtesy Chryslers, an artery-clogging lunch spread every day and a healthy $2.75-million purse. In return the players provided birdies, lots of them, and the sizable gallery spent four days cheering its approval. All of this will no doubt come as a surprise to much of the golf world, which assumed Tucson's little tournament had turned into tumbleweed the moment the Tour scheduled it opposite the first of the glitzy new World Championships.
"Reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated," crowed Judy McDermott, the tournament director, and you'll have to excuse her gloating. While the Match Play came down to a couple of guys who would've fit right in in Tucson, the Open came up roses, and we're not talking about Clarence. Gabriel Hjertstedt beat Tommy Armour III on the first extra hole to win the event's first playoff in 16 years, thus earning the title of 65th best golfer in the world, and the event also got strong showings from its marquee names. Fuzzy Zoeller was Friday's star with a 66, which matched the low round of the day, and John Daly and Corey Pavin rediscovered their old form long enough to hang within four strokes of the lead going into the final round and earn a Sunday tee time together.
O.K., even if the winner's name wasn't exactly A-list, plenty of players dazzled with their A game. On Thursday, Tommy Tolles double-eagled the 495-yard par-5 2nd hole, while Tom Scherrer made five straight birdies on the front nine, tying the Tour's best birdie binge of '99. These guys are good, too. "I've heard a lot of talk about how all the good players are over at La Costa," Paul Stankowski said following the first round. "That's a joke. If you look at the Tour as a whole, the same number wins every tournament—15 under. That's what it's going to take this week, no matter who's here."
Stankowski was close, as Hjertstedt's four-round score was a 12-under 276, but inevitably much of the week's focus was on who wasn't in Tucson. The most notable absentee was David Duval, the defending champ who didn't defend (joining the 1956 victor, Ted Kroll, as the only absentee champs in the tournament's history). Still, Duval hovered over the proceedings like a sunglasses-wearing specter, mostly because the tournament put him on the cover of the program and pairings sheets and on various billboards around town. ("Hey, he did win it last year," McDermott says mischievously.) This bit of false advertising wasn't necessary. The Tucson field included more than 50 players who had won on Tour, boasting a combined 10 majors. That so many accomplished players were excluded from the biggest money event ever led to some strong emotions.
Said Steve Flesch, who at No. 68 in the World Ranking was the Tucsonian closest to making the field at La Costa, "A lot of guys here are saying, 'Screw that tournament. I don't want to watch it. I don't want to talk about it.' " Then again, the one TV in the players' lounge was tuned to the Match Play throughout the week, and it never failed to draw a boisterous audience. Scherrer, an enthusiastic 28-year-old who has spent most of his pro career on the Nike tour, even moved up his practice schedule last Wednesday so he could spend the afternoon watching the wild first round of the Match Play. "What can I say? I'm a fan," he said. Others looked to La Costa for motivation, not entertainment.
"Yeah, it's like a slap in the face not to be there, but sometimes you need that," said Peter Jacobsen. "I know at this stage of my career it's been a good wake-up. My goal now is to make next year's Match Play."
The Tour did try to make Tucson more attractive by pumping $750,000 of its own money into the purse. In another show of support, commissioner Tim Finchem flew in last Thursday to face the hostile local press. One prickly reporter asked the com-mish, "It's probably a little presumptuous to assume that the PGA Tour has a conscience, but have you guys had any remorse?" Finchem, who kept his cool throughout the 45-minute grilling, answered, "It's unfortunate that someone had to play against the World Championship, and it's unfortunate from a perception standpoint that it was Tucson. But on balance...we did a reasonably good job. Does that mean we're happy about creating disappointment? No." Finchem's appearance, however admirable, hardly drew rave reviews. One wag wrote in the Tucson Star, "So it is no longer fair or accurate to say that Finchem stabbed the Tucson Open in the back. He inserted the knife, yes, but it was a frontal assault."
That kind of bitterness is a measure of how dearly the folks in Tucson love their tournament, which is among the oldest on Tour, dating back to 1945. The tournament enjoyed a high profile in the mid-'70s, when Johnny Miller won it three times in a row, and local hero Phil Mickelson returned it to prominence in the '90s, taking the '91 championship while an undergrad at Arizona State and winning again in 1995 and '96.
In announcing the Match Play's competing slot on the schedule a year ago, Finchem floated the idea to the Conquistadores, the local committee of volunteers that runs the tournament, of bagging it altogether and taking on a new Senior tour event. This perceived slight only galvanized local resolve. Chrysler had already downgraded its role from title sponsor to presenting sponsor, but the Conquistadores were able to squeeze a two-year commitment out of Touchstone Energy, a national alliance of electric co-ops. Local businesses were pressured to increase their support, and fans rallied to the point that this year's attendance was up 8% from '98. After bidding adieu to ABC, the Tucson brass put together a creative TV package that had the Golf Channel televising the first two rounds with CNBC taking over on the weekend. The tournament was the first live sports telecast for CNBC, and the cable network went all out, buying a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal and on Friday staging its popular business program Power Lunch at Tucson National. It's doubtful that ABC, which took a ratings hit at the Match Play, shared the same enthusiasm.
The way future Tour schedules have been configured, Tucson will remain what Finchem calls "an encumbered date" through 2002, and the tournament could continue to get the shaft beyond that. Clearly, the long-term viability of the event remains in question. But for this year, at least, the story was the fall and rise of the Tucson Open, even if few national outlets paid any attention. In Friday's USA Today, Tucson received all of two sentences in the sports section, and they were buried on page 5. The Match Play, meanwhile, was splashed across the top of the front page in tall type—one more example that bigger doesn't necessarily mean better.