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Tournament directors always have one eye on the sky. Dave Kaplan, the head honcho at last week's AT&T Classic in Duluth, Ga., knows more about the weather than most--probably because he saw so much of it during the nine years his event, formerly known as the BellSouth Classic, straddled the March-April divide. "We had high winds, hail, sleet, fog and cold," Kaplan said last Friday. "Frogs is about the only thing we didn't have." At the 2005 BellSouth heavy rains forced play to be canceled on Thursday and Friday. "During the snowstorm on Saturday," Kaplan continued with a straight face, "I went to my office and sent an e-mail." The e-mail, addressed to Henry Hughes, the PGA Tour's chief of operations, was succinct: "As I write this, it's snowing. We really need to talk about a date change." � Two years later, thanks to a schedule shuffle dictated by the requirements of the new FedEx Cup race, Kaplan has gotten his wish: a date in May. And not just any May date, but a week torn from the Garden of Eden catalog. That's judging from last week's Atlanta-area weather, a blue-skies-and-cool-breeze paradigm that lured thousands of spectators onto the verdant hillsides of the TPC Sugarloaf.
Unfortunately, the field of golfers was like the sky on those stormy March nights: starless. Two-time defending champion Phil Mickelson was a no-show. Tiger Woods was a never-gave-it-a-thought. The only top 10 player in attendance was Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who is a cipher to casual fans. The one genuine fan favorite--41-year-old John Daly, ranked 284th in the world and in the field thanks to a sponsor's exemption--tried to play through the pain of a lingering shoulder injury but shot a first-round 77 and had to withdraw.
Otherwise, it was a Who's Who of Who-lessness. "All these players come off the course saying how good it is," said one amused Tour veteran. "The problem is, you don't know who you're talking to. You've never seen them before." If the AT&T had been a Broadway production, there would have been a notice in Sunday's Playbill: "The role of Vijay Singh will be played this afternoon by Ryuji Imada."
Not that any of that will matter to golf historians, who will someday run their fingers down the column of AT&T Classic winners and stop at 2007 champion Zach Johnson. The field, they will imagine, was top drawer because--well, because Johnson was in it. He's the Masters champ, after all, and his one-hole playoff victory over Imada on Sunday gave Johnson his second Classic title since 2004. When you start piling up wins in the same tournament, you're a star.
O.K., piling up is a little strong for a guy who has only three PGA Tour victories on his r�sum�. ( Mickelson, who was chilling at home in San Diego after his star turn in the Players Championship, has 31.) Johnson has, however, won all of his tournaments in Georgia. That probably constituted piling on to all the Georgia and Georgia Tech loyalists who spent the week barking and buzzing for Imada, a former Bulldog, and third-round leader Troy Matteson, a onetime Yellow Jacket. ("I'm a Bulldog," the Iowa-born Johnson explained in a leader-in-the-clubhouse interview, "but I'm a Drake Bulldog.") And though he neither looks nor acts like a celebrity, Johnson has exchanged quips with Regis and Kelly, Letterman and Oprah. His Masters triumph earned him laudatory proclamations from the Iowa house and senate. Trust me, even Paris Hilton goes weak in the knees when someone hands her a vellum document that begins, "Whereas...." (You can write the punch line.)
Did I mention that the weather was really great? The course played firm and fast, and the air was so clear at Sugarloaf that you didn't need a telescope and a defogger to spot the few "names" in contention. Best of the bunch was Colombian heartthrob Camilo (Spiderman) Villegas, who looked as if he might snare his first Tour win until a wild tee shot on the par-5 10th led to a final-round double bogey and a share of third. Next best was another former Yellow Jacket and onetime Masters phenom Matt Kuchar, whose comeback from a stint on the Nationwide tour gained plausibility thanks to a third-round 64 and a tie for third. Cameo appearances were also made by 42-year-old two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, who lost his Tour card last year and needed a sponsor's exemption to make the field, and by 44-year-old former PGA and Players champion Steve Elkington, who has only cracked the top 150 on the money list once since 2002 but was still glowing from his 12th at the Players. With final rounds of 74 and 73, respectively, the popular veterans joined a five-way tie for 16th and collected $81,000 apiece.
It was Johnson and Imada, though, who would be asked to entertain the nation on Sunday. Imada, who left Japan at age 14 to play golf and become fluent in college-dormitory English, led by as many as two strokes on Sunday, but five Johnson birdies on the last 11 holes forced Imada to birdie the flume-ride par-5 18th to make the playoff. This Imada did, thanks to a deft chip to three feet from behind the green.
But the playoff ended as abruptly as a dropped call. Playing the 18th hole again, Imada found the left rough off the tee. From that grassy nest, high on the hillside, he tried to fly a 263-yard three-wood shot across the water to a tight front pin, on the theory that Johnson would make no worse than birdie from his perfect lie in the fairway. Imada's ball, failing to follow this line of reasoning, splashed down about pin-high, well left of the flag. "I had to take a chance," he said (Big Play, page G24). The pressure off, Johnson pured a four-iron to the back of the green and lagged his eagle putt to within inches for a tap-in victory.
Afterward Johnson gently corrected those who suggested that his trophy would have sparkled more if, say, Jim Furyk had hit it into the water instead of Imada. "Every field is good," he said. "This field was great. It didn't have the so-called marquee players, [but] you're going to be hearing a lot from these guys in the years to come. They're going to be top 50, top 30, top 15 players."
Kaplan, the weather watcher, was thrilled. Kaplan, the tournament director, well, he looked pretty happy too. "It is what it is," he said on Friday, unaware that a Johnson-Imada finish would lead to a 20% drop in the final-round rating for the CBS tournament telecast from those of the '06 BellSouth. "The field isn't as strong as before, but we were going to lose sponsors if we didn't change dates. Sponsors spend thousands of dollars to entertain clients, and if you only give them a day and a half of good weather, they can't justify the expense."