Season Preview 2003

SPORT SECTIONS
Thursday, January 9, 2003
2003 Viewer's Guide: Ten events you shouldn't miss




If you can catch only a few golf events in 2003, here are the 10 you shouldn't miss -- and why you shouldn't miss them.

Feb. 13-16: Buick Invitational
Location: Torrey Pines (North and South courses); San Diego
Purse: $4.5 million; TV: USA/CBS
Last three winners: Jose Maria Olazabal ('02), Phil Mickelson ('00, '01), Tiger Woods ('99)

Tournament history/facts
Tiger Woods
Woods

Because of the quality of the course and of past fields, this tournament attracts most of the big names in golf. Won by either Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson in three of the last four years, it has been played at Torrey Pines -- one of the best municipal courses in the country -- since 1968.

Torrey Pines will also become just the second public course to host a U.S. Open in 2008. The South course has been lengthened with that in mind.

Why you should care
This would not have made our list were it not for Woods' knee surgery in December. The procedure will keep him outside the ropes until February, and it's widely expected he'll make his 2003 debut on the banks of the Pacific here.

Expect an even brighter spotlight than usual to be placed on the world's top golfer -- and Southern California native -- all week long. Will he be rusty coming out of the gate? How's the knee? Did he dye his hair blond again?

Feb. 26-March 2: WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship
Location: La Costa Resort and Spa; Carlsbad, Calif.
Purse: $6 million; TV: ESPN/ABC
Last three winners: Kevin Sutherland ('02), Steve Stricker ('01), Darren Clarke ('00)

Tournament history/facts
The first World Golf Championships event of the year will be played at La Costa for the fourth time in its five-year history. Its $6 million purse and $1 million top prize are among the biggest in golf. The single-elimination match play event, held over five days, is only open to the top 64 in the world golf ranking.

Why you should care
This is the NCAA Tournament of golf, one of the only events on the golf calendar that is perfectly suited for the office gambling junkie. It pits the top 64 golfers in the world against each other in the game's most exciting format -- match play. Woods was humbled in last year's first round, where he was ousted by Peter O'Malley 2 and 1.

March 27-30: The Players Championship
Location: TPC at Sawgrass; Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Purse: $6 million (last year's purse); TV: ESPN/NBC
Last three winners: Craig Perks ('02), Tiger Woods ('01), Hal Sutton ('00)

Tournament history/facts
Craig Perks
Perks

The tournament began in 1974 as the Tournament Players Championship, becoming The Players Championship in 1988. It's been played at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course (designed by Pete Dye) since 1982. Perks won the 2002 event in dramatic fashion, playing the final three holes at 3-under with two chip-ins and a long birdie putt on the signature 17th hole.

Why you should care
This is the players' tournament -- extremely popular with almost everyone on tour -- and attracts the strongest field of any event year after year. The tournament is also an important tune-up for The Masters two weeks later; a strong finish here can sometimes be parlayed into success at Augusta. Moreover, it has one of the best par-3s in golf -- the world-renown island green on No. 17. Many a golfer has seen his title hopes drowned in the drink surrounding this hole, not to mention the tricky putting surface.

April 10-13: The Masters
The Masters Location: Augusta National; Augusta, Ga.
Purse: $6 million; TV: USA/CBS
Last three winners: Tiger Woods ('02,'01), Vijay Singh ('00), Jose Maria Olazabal ('99)

Tournament history/facts
The Masters is not only the first major of the year, it's arguably the most prestigious event on the golf calendar as well (at least in the eyes of the men wearing green jackets). It's been played every year (except during World War II from 1943 to '45) since 1934 at Augusta National. Bobby Jones helped to found both the course and the tournament.

Augusta was lengthened by about 300 yards before last year's tournament, limiting the number of players with the distance to seriously contend for the green jacket. Woods has won the last two Masters, and will try to become the first to make it three in a row.

The official purse for the event won't be announced until the Saturday of tournament week.

Why you should care
The Masters will be a larger-than-life event in 2003. The well-publicized feud between a women's group and Augusta over the club's all-male membership history will come to a head during the tournament, with picketers promised and media saturation guaranteed.

On the course, Woods will be going after an unprecedented third straight green jacket, and he'll also be attempting to win the first leg in another attempt at golf's first Grand Slam.

Oh, and by the way, club chairman Hootie Johnson has eliminated the tournament's sponsors (deciding to drop them because of the membership feud), meaning your Masters telecasts will be commercial-free -- a couch potato's dream come true.

June 12-15: U.S. Open
Location: Olympia Fields CC; Olympia Fields, Ill.
Purse: $6 million; TV: ESPN/NBC
Last three winners: Tiger Woods ('02, '00), Retief Goosen ('01), Payne Stewart ('99)

Tournament history/facts
The 103rd U.S. Open will be played just outside Chicago at Olympia Fields, which last hosted the event in 1928. The USGA prides itself in making U.S. Open courses extremely difficult -- sometimes bordering on unfair -- so expect deep rough, fast greens and high scores. The Open is also unique in that if players are tied at the end of 72 holes, they come back to play an extra 18 on Monday instead of a sudden-death playoff.

Why you should care
The year's second major is one of the don't-miss events on the golf calendar every season on the strength of its name and reputation alone. Sundays always make for particularly interesting viewing -- there's no pressure like U.S. Open pressure. Remember last year's raucous New York crowd at Bethpage? Expect a similar atmosphere -- although no one can get quite as rowdy as Gothamites -- at Olympia, as it's not far outside Chicago.

Woods is also popular in the midwest. He won the Western Open twice in the late 1990s at nearby Lemont, Ill.

July 3-6: U.S. Women's Open
Location: Pumpkin Ridge GC; North Plains, Ore.
Purse: $3 million
Last three winners: Juli Inkster ('02, '99), Karrie Webb ('01, '00), Se Ri Pak ('98)

Tournament history/facts
Juli Inkster
Inkster

The biggest event in women's golf -- and the year's second LPGA major -- returns to Pumpkin Ridge for the first time since 1997. It began in 1946 as a match-play event, switching to stroke play the following year. Last year's tournament was a memorable one. Much to the delight of the pro-American gallery, Inkster fired a final-round 66 to shoot ahead of Swedish star Annika Sorenstam and win her second U.S. Women's Open.

Why you should care
The tournament is the only women's event that made our list. For the past few years, the LPGA Tour has seen an influx of talented international players dominate the game: Sorenstam (Sweden), Webb (Australia) and Pak (South Korea) to name a few. It will be interesting to see if Inkster and the Americans can keep the national championship in U.S. hands.

July 17-20: British Open
Location: Royal St. George's; Sandwich, England
Purse: $6 million; TV: TNT/ABC
Last three winners: Ernie Els ('02), David Duval ('01), Tiger Woods ('00)

Tournament history/facts
The year's third major -- which will be played for the 132nd time in 2003 -- is also golf's oldest championship. Played on traditional links courses in the sport's homeland, the style of play is unlike anything seen in the States. The wide-open layout, high winds, deep bunkers and hard fairways require players to adapt their games on the fly. The Open will be played at Royal St. George's for the first time since 1993.

Why you should care
The British Open is always interesting viewing. It's a hoot to see the world's best golfers struggle their way around an unfamiliar course in an unfamiliar land -- particularly when the wind and rain start to make things really interesting (see Woods' meltdown at Muirfield last year).

The galleries are some of the most knowledgable in the game, and will brave any kind of weather to catch the action. We all remember the shot of hundreds of people looking for Gary Evans' ball buried in the deep rough on the 17th at Muirfield last year. Priceless.

Aug. 7-10: The International
Location: Castle Pines GC; Castle Rock, Colo.
Purse: $5 million; TV: USA/CBS
Last three winners: Rich Beem ('02), Tom Pernice ('01), Ernie Els ('00)

Tournament history/facts
Rich Beem's victory at The International was a precursor of things to come.
The International is the only PGA Tour event that uses the Modified Stableford scoring system, which rewards players for aggressive play and doesn't penalize them as much for mistakes. Points are awarded as follows: double eagles +8, eagles +5, birdies +2, par 0, bogey -1, double bogey or worse -3.

The final round of the 2002 International had one of the most thrilling conclusions of the year. Eventual winner Rich Beem had seven birdies and an eagle to jump ahead of the field, but was almost caught down the stretch by one of the most amazing runs in recent memory. Steve Lowery had a birdie, an eagle and a double eagle in his last five holes to almost catch Beem. Lowery had a 12-foot birdie putt on 18 that would have won him the tournament, but he just missed.

Why you should care
The International is like no other golf tournament. Because of the unique scoring system, players are more likely to go for the green in two on par 5s or take out the big stick where they otherwise wouldn't. It's a breath of fresh air for fans who tire of the low-risk strategy most pros employee week in and week out. You'll see more players go for broke here than in any other event because they're not penalized as heavily for it. The event is perfectly suited for free-swinging Phil Mickelson, who won it in 1993 and 1997 and finished runner-up in 1998 and 2000.

The tournament should also draw a strong field, particularly among international players who will use it as a tune-up for the PGA Championship the next week.

Aug. 14-17: PGA Championship
Location: Oak Hill CC; Rochester, N.Y.
Purse: $6 million; TV: TNT/CBS
Last three winners: Rich Beem ('02), David Toms ('01), Tiger Woods ('00)

Tournament history/facts
The 85th PGA Championship will be the final of the four majors in 2003, and its field of strictly professionals is the strongest among the four. The tournament returns to Oak Hill Country Club for the first time since Jack Nicklaus won his record-tying fifth and final PGA here in 1980.

Why you should care
For starters, this is your last chance to catch major championship golf for eight months. And while the PGA is sometimes considered the black sheep of the majors, Rochester could be the site of the biggest golf tournament in 50 years, should someone (again see Woods) win the first three majors and come into the PGA with a shot at golf's first Grand Slam.

Nov. 21-23: Presidents Cup
Location: The Links at Fancourt; George, S. Africa
Last time: United States 21, International 10 ('00)

Tournament history/facts
Like the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup is a team event, pitting the United States against a squad of international (non-European) players in match play -- two days of two-man team competition, one day of singles. Jack Nicklaus will captain the Americans, and Gary Players heads up the Internationals.

The Sept. 11 tragedy that postponed the Ryder Cup for a year also pushed the Presidents Cup back as well. Now, the Ryder Cup will be played in years ending with an even number and the President's Cup odd numbers. This year's Presidents Cup is the first since 2000, when the Americans soundly thrashed the International squad.

Why you should care
The drama and history don't come close to Ryder Cup levels, but that's not to say the Presidents Cup isn't an attention grabber. Turning one of the most individual-centric sports in the world into a team competition makes for interesting viewing no matter how you slice it.

The popularity of this event in the United States will depend on whether Tiger Woods decides to play. He's teetered back and forth on the issue, at least in the media, and probably won't make up his mind until he has to. South Africa native Ernie Els, who's starting to emerge as Woods' top rival, will be on his home turf for the event. Wouldn't it be something to see Woods and Els go head to head in Sunday's singles?

David Lefort is ESPN.com's golf editor, and can be reached at david.m.lefort@espn3.com.


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