For years the Doral-Ryder Open has been considered the unofficial start of the PGA Tour season. Last week's event, however, was more like the unofficial start of spring break. Never have so many top players decided that Doral was the time to gear down, not up.
Caught in the deadly wake of the Tour's new big-deal Andersen Consulting Match Play championship, the folks at Doral were left with a watered-down field, even after a 50% purse increase from $2 million to $3 million. Only 24 of the 64 players who teed it up at the match play event came to Doral, and fourth-ranked Ernie Els was the lone player among the top seven to show up. (Even Els admitted he had planned to skip Doral until he lost in the first round at La Costa.) Missing in action were Florida residents Tiger Woods, David Duval and Mark O'Meara, as well as Davis Love III, whose Sea Island, Ga., house is just 30 miles across the Florida border. How bad was the field? An even more startling statistic was that only 66 of the top 125 money winners from last year's Tour were in attendance. That's Doral Lite.
Doral did have its share of ranked players. The Nike tour players and Q school graduates, reordered based on their winnings after the West Coast swing, flooded the field, from No. 1 Chris Riley, a former UNLV star who turned professional in 1996, all the way to No. 55 and last place Scott Dunlap, a 35-year-old journeyman who once played tournament golf on five continents in the same year and last week hung in to tie for third and collect his biggest paycheck ever, $135,300. The best way to measure a tournament's depth of field is to check out the bottom. At Doral 32 Q school players teed it up. "I ranked third after the reshuffle my first year on Tour, and I didn't get in this tournament," Glen Day said in recalling being left out in 1994. "It used to be that if you were coming out of the Q school, you never even thought you might play Doral."
What has happened is indicative of a fundamental shift on the PGA Tour, one result of the dominoes that are still falling after the creation of the World Golf Championships, the three new high-gloss events designed to bring the world's best players together more often and make golf more global. "I don't like what this has done to the game," says Jack Nicklaus, who is recovering from hip replacement surgery and used a cane to walk the Doral grounds last week so he could watch his son Gary play. "You add a few of these world tournaments to the majors, and all of a sudden the Tour becomes a satellite tour. That is the one fear I have. Doral has been hurt from it. I think the match play event is great. I like the idea of the best players in the world playing against each other more often, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the rest of the Tour."
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Match Play was scheduled as the last stop of the West Coast swing, a week that many big names had traditionally taken off. Players, of course, wanted to be sharp for it, which meant competing in the weeks leading up to the $5 million event. That added up to much stronger fields at Pebble Beach and at Riviera in Los Angeles, but it made Doral and this week's Honda Classic a good time to, well, take a break. The Bay Hill Invitational follows the Honda. Then comes The Players Championship, the fifth-major wannabe. That is followed by a stop outside Atlanta and then the Masters. "This event [always] was the start of the drive to Augusta," says Roger Maltbie, a Tour veteran of the '70s and '80s who worked the '99 Doral as a roving reporter for NBC. "And the start of warmer temperatures. Guys got rid of their sweaters when they came here. Players will always weigh the places they like the best, but timing on the schedule is big now. It's become a 12-month game instead of 10 months. You've got to look at how you're going to play your best for 12 months. This year the drive to Augusta and The Players Championship maybe starts at Bay Hill."
The weak field at Doral also reflects another shift. The money has grown so big so fast that it doesn't mean as much. The World Ranking, which determines who gets into the world events and even into some of the majors, has suddenly become more important. "This used to be a really big tournament, and a lot of it had to do with the purse," Day says. "Now it's just average. We play for so much money, we've got to be fresh all year. If that means taking off a big tournament, whether it's Colonial or Memorial or Bay Hill, so you can play three other tournaments down the road, yeah, you do it. What drives your life? Money? Family? A hunting trip? Skiing? Golf is a business."
More than ever, Tour events are now hostages to their dates. If your event falls the week after an important tournament, don't expect a star-studded field. "A lot of guys didn't come here because of the Match Play, and we've got some big events coming up," says Greg Norman, a three-time Doral winner who finished 19th last week. "Sometimes good tournaments suffer, and this is a good tournament. This is a good golf course, and the field will come back."
Maybe, maybe not. Some players stay away from Doral because they don't care for the design changes that Raymond Floyd made two years ago, even though they have been markedly softened due to complaints. When Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who stopped at Doral early last week, was asked about the tournament's schedule problem, he denied there was one. He said the match play event had no impact on Doral, then pulled a sheet out of his pocket and read the names of some of the players in the field: Els, Norman, John Daly, Steve Elkington, Nick Faldo, John Huston, Justin Leonard, Nick Price and Vijay Singh, among others. "I can't get too worried about the quality of the field," Finchem concluded. "A lot of tournaments would kill for this field."
As it turned out, two of those marquee players, Elkington and Els, provided plenty of star power, and Doral got a classic black-and-Blue Monster finish induced by the dreaded 443-yard 18th, which is probably the most feared and loathed finishing hole on the Tour. Not even Elkington, who plastered 10 birdies on the board in a final-round run that carried him from six shots back to victory, escaped unscathed. He three-putted for bogey from 40 feet, cutting his lead to one over Els, Dunlap and Greg Kraft, all of whom still had most of the back nine to play. As a result of the mistake, Elkington may have become the first player to kick—and dent—the scoring trailer's wall after shooting 64. Asked later how his foot was feeling, the owner of the Tour's best-looking swing joked, "Turn around. I'll show you."
Els, the two-time U.S. Open champion and owner of the swing you would kill for if you couldn't get Elkington's, looked as if he would at least force a playoff. He birdied the 17th hole to move into a tie for the lead, then hit a perfect drive at the 18th. He had fought off a case of the pulls the day before when he scraped out a 70 with a final-hole birdie, and trying to hit a hard eight-iron to the back-left pin position, he pulled another shot left. The ball burrowed in the deep bermuda rough. "I was thinking, Just get it on the damn green," said Els, who didn't. His flop shot flopped, and the ball rolled down the bank toward the lake, stopping in the rough again. The next try went 15 feet past the hole, and Els had to settle for a double bogey. As he stormed to the scoring trailer, he fired his ball against a temporary fence. "I can't believe those two shots," he muttered later.