Originally created 04/01/04

Timing yields weaker group



DULUTH, Ga. - Defending BellSouth Classic champion Ben Crane spent the past two days reminiscing over his breakthrough victory on the PGA Tour.

Repeating would be great, Crane said. But when the tournament begins this morning at the Tournament Players Club at Sugarloaf, he will have simpler motivations, as will the other 143 players in the field.

"A lot of guys are here to get ready for the Masters, and the rest of us are here trying to play well enough to get their world rankings up to play in tournaments like that in the future," Crane said.

That's a hard reality for the once-proud tournament, which annually falls between The Players Championship and the Masters Tournament on PGA Tour calendar. Among the BellSouth's past winners are several of the game's greatest players, including Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods.

But in recent years, the tournament's field has become one of the most anonymous on the PGA Tour. Many Masters qualifiers take the week off to rest or head to Augusta early to get ready for golf's biggest tournament.

That leaves the BellSouth littered with little-known players trying to take advantage of one of the year's weakest fields. Their hope is for a high finish and a few extra points in the World Golf Rankings.

The BellSouth lost even more prestige five years ago, when the Masters changed its qualifying rules. Prior to the 2000 Masters, most players earned a spot in the tournament at Augusta National Golf Club by winning another event in the preceding year. That guaranteed a quality field for the BellSouth, the last chance for golfers to earn an invitation to the Masters.

But the Masters adopted a more stringent qualification policy beginning with the 2000 tournament. The new standards were based on the World Golf Rankings, the PGA Tour money list and top finishes at recent major championships.

The changes made it unnecessary for top pros who had played consistently but not won on tour in the past year to enter the BellSouth.

The result is a field of golfers the casual fan would need a tournament program to identify. Only 16 BellSouth participants will play next week in Augusta, and five of them hail from overseas.

The international players compete in part because of the event's proximity to Augusta - two hours by car - and the similar layout of the TPC at Sugarloaf to Augusta National. The 7,293-yard course winds through rolling hills and boasts notoriously fast greens.

"You're asked to pick clubs in different wind conditions, just like Augusta. And there's a lot of trouble around the greens. And these greens get ever so quick," said Ireland's Padraig Harrington, one of the top players on the European Tour who is playing just his second event in the United States this year. "It's great preparation for next week."

Recent history supports the argument for playing the BellSouth prior to the Masters. Four of the past six BellSouth winners finished in the top 10 at the Masters the next week.

Reach Adam Van Brimmer at (404) 589-8424.