CONOVER, N.C. -- Balance, a talent influx, different venues - even a new name - have led to a small resurgence of the Champions Tour.
"I don't know why anybody would want to watch the regular tour now if Tiger (Woods) is not playing," Bruce Fleisher said Thursday as he prepared for the Greater Hickory Classic at Rock Barn, one of the senior tour's 10 new events or venues in 2003.
"We've got such tremendous name recognition. You can just go right down the list. It's really deja vu for the baby boomers of 25 years ago. It's a special place out here now."
In the early years of the tour, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez were the crowd favorites. While those three still draw fans, they've cut back their schedules as players such as Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Craig Stadler and Fuzzy Zoeller have come aboard.
"And I wish a guy like Ben Crenshaw would play more," Hale Irwin said. "That would helps things even more because he's a great player and such a historian of the game."
To have Watson playing so well is a major plus. He has won two majors on the Champions Tour, then crossed over to the regular tour and was tied for the first-round lead at the U.S. Open.
Then there's Stadler, the Walrus, who has won on both tours this season.
And even Jack Nicklaus is chipping in, playing nine events this season, two or three more than normal.
"The Champions Tour is the comeback player of the year," said Walter Hall, a regular on the Champions Tour who lives in Clemmons.
D.A. Wiebring's win last weekend at the SAS Championship in Cary made it 25 players with a title, tying the mark set in 1995.
Only two players - Watson and Bruce Lietzke - have won twice, leaving the player of the year race still in question with four events left.
New talent the past few seasons has the competition level at an all-time high, players said.
"It's like the regular tour, Tiger has made everybody step it up a notch and get to another level. Well, these players have done the same thing here," Hall said.
"The new influx of talent is showing the tour is more competitive than a few years ago when Hale, Fleisher and (Larry) Nelson were winning six or seven times a year," added Morris Hatalsky. "I would venture to say it's much more difficult to do something like that today."
Watson is not here this week and will play just one more event before the Tour Championship. Despite just 12 tournaments, many of the players believe Watson's stellar play is worthy of player of the year honors.
"It's hard to discount what he's done outside the Champions Tour, even though we're talking about player of the year on the Champions Tour," Hatalsky said. "He's played tremendous golf on the regular tour."
Nine of the top 10 on the money list are here this week to challenge a hilly course with plenty of water and big greens.
"Word got out early that this was a very, very testy golf course and guys like that challenge," Fleisher said.
"It's the type of golf course where you can play 16 wonderful holes and come to 17 and made a quick double or triple before you can spin your head. It can happen out here."
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