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Anyone for round-trip airfare?

9/22/2004

This week's 84 Lumber Classic of Pennsylvania is in golf's dead zone, a time when tournaments on the PGA Tour scramble to find relevance.

It isn't enough anymore to put up a $5-million purse and expect everyone to show up. And when you follow the Ryder Cup and precede the American Express Championship in Ireland ... well, what are you supposed to do?

How about come up with one of the all-time perks ever offered on the PGA Tour?

This is a deal that is extraordinary, even for people who supposedly don't have to worry about money and transportation.

Any player who competes at this week's tournament in remote Farmington, Pa., and is also eligible for next week's World Golf Championship event will receive round-trip airfare.

But there's more: The tournament is chartering a 747 that is specially configured with all first-class seating and full catering. Players can bring their spouse, nanny, caddie and children. If they don't bring their children, they can invite three guests.

It made David Toms take notice. The 2001 PGA champion who played in the Ryder Cup last week is one of three U.S. team members who decided to play in Pennsylvania because of the perk. He said a $40,000 value was too good to pass up.

And it helps explain how a tournament that got just one of the top 21 money winners last year now has 19 of the top 30. And that's after Tiger Woods and Kenny Perry withdrew.

"We're looking at dealing with a challenging date for our tournament,'' said 84 Lumber Classic tournament director Eric Mehl. "Those two events on either side of us dominate the landscape for the top players. We wanted to put together a program that the tour approved and fell within the rules. ... The players thought it was a good idea.''

Good idea? You bet. First-class round-trip airfare for six people? Mehl would not disclose how much it would cost to charter the plane, but it must be considerably more than the standard fare of free tickets to sporting events and complimentary meals that tournaments typically shower upon players.

"We did look at taking up our purse and what would be more effective,'' Mehl said of the $4.2-million purse. "We thought it would be more effective to do this program.''

The only problem with the tour approving such a deal is it ramps up the pressure on other events to something similar. Simple math says PGA Tour players cannot play every event.

There are 43 weeks of official tournament golf. Aside from the majors, World Golf Championships, the Players Championship and the Tour Championship, the top players are left with numerous choices for a few spots in their schedules.

The 84 Lumber offer comes dangerously close to an appearance fee, which the PGA Tour does not permit. But the tour signed off on the arrangement, perhaps knowing that one of its own would be better served.

Five Things To Bank On
1. Tiger Woods skipping the 84 Lumber Classic after committing last week will still be the talk of the week. Now you know why Woods typically waits until the last minute to commit to any tournament, even ones everybody knows he will play. If he decides to pull out -- which is his right -- he gets hammered unlike anyone else.

2. Vijay Singh never slows down, and this week will be no different. With seven victories, he still has plenty to play for. A second-place finish will clinch a second straight PGA Tour money title, assuming Singh plays next week and at the Tour Championship, where the guaranteed money he is to receive will make it impossible for him to be caught.

3. Whoever wins the 84 Lumber Classic is going to have to go low. Way low. Last year, J.L. Lewis shot all four rounds in the 60s, including a final-round 62.

4. Mike Weir will come back strong. After a week to mull his excruciating playoff defeat to Singh at the Canadian Open, Weir should be back in top form.

5. The Champions Tour will have a mad fight to the finish for those hoping to be among the top 30 and qualify for the season-ending Charles Schwab (Tour Championship). Amazingly, Jay Haas holds the 30th position on the money list despite playing in just three Champions Tour events. Imagine what he would have done had he played a full schedule.



Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.