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
"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.
March 8, 1999
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 commish,
"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
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.