Phil Mickelson. Vijay Singh. David Toms. Jim Furyk. With four of the top five money winners on the PGA Tour, the 84 Lumber Classic has a better field than most of the post-major tournaments.
For tournament founder and lumberyard billionaire Joe Hardy, it's not good enough.
Hardy is willing to spend big to turn what now is a well-attended but relatively unimportant event that begins Thursday into an upper-tier tournament that doesn't compete with football season, the pennant races, the back-to-school rush or the European pro circuit.
So, after spending nearly $75 million in the last year building a five-star, on-course players lodge and further improving the Mystic Rock course at his Nemacolin Woodlands resort southeast of Pittsburgh, Hardy is lobbying hard for a better tour date starting next year.
With Hardy showing he can attract many of the recognizable names via intense lobbying - Tiger Woods was set to play last year, but pulled out after the Ryder Cup - he wants better dates to showcase his fast-maturing tournament.
While attendance should be respectable, with about 70,00 tickets sold, the 84 Lumber Classic is going against the Steelers' game Sunday in Houston and Pitt's televised game Saturday at Nebraska. That kind of competition is bound to limit the crowds, especially since most fans are expected to drive at least an hour each way to get there.
Hardy prefers to see the tournament moved to August as soon as next year, though the change might not come until 2007, when new TV contracts could result in a slimmed-down schedule that eliminates some lesser-interest fall tournaments.
Hardy has spoken often with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem about getting an earlier date, before the Steelers' season starts and college and high school students are back in school.
"We've made Tim Finchem sensitive to our desires," Hardy said. "But we feel we're going to earn whatever date we're eventually going to get."
Seventeen of the top 30 money winners are entered in the $4.4 million tournament, won last year by Singh during a run of five victories in six tournaments. Also entered among the top 10 money winners are PGA champion Mickelson, Toms, Furyk and Chris DiMarco.
Ten golfers, including the International team's Stuart Appleby, Peter Lonard and Singh, are using the tournament to tune up for next week's Presidents Cup in Virginia.
Last year's event attracted 21 of the top 30 money winners, partly because Hardy leased two private planes to shuttle golfers to the following week's World Golf Championship event in Ireland. But while Hardy spends big each year to attract a quality field, this was one perk that didn't work as intended; one plane experienced mechanical problems, forcing a 12-hour delay that irked some golfers.
As a result, Hardy was extra generous to the golfers this year, sending gifts on their birthdays, their wives' and kids' birthdays, Father's Day and Mother's Day. Mickelson's 2-year-old son, Evan, got a tournament-supplied birthday visit from a Spider-Man character.
Hardy also listened to advice offered by Singh and John Daly, both of whom are sponsored by 84 Lumber, and undertook the second major renovation of the 7,511-yard Mystic Rock course in as many years. Twelve of the 18 holes were altered, making what previously was an average course narrower and longer.
Numerous players said the course needed toughening following winning scores of 22 under (by J.L. Lewis in a weak 2003 field) and 15 under (by Singh).
One feature that wasn't changed is the statue of Daly that stands in front of a waterfall near the No. 5 hole. Daly and Hardy are so close that Daly calls him "Dad," and the resort contains a golf teaching center named for Daly.
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