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Warren Bennett

Uncertain future for Buick Challenge

Davis Love III once showed up for his tee time at Callaway Gardens with camouflage paint smudged on his face.

He didn't have time to wipe it all off after some early morning hunting in the quiet, rolling hills of west Georgia.

Most weeks on the PGA Tour, there's little time for pursuits such as hunting or fishing. That's why the Buick Challenge has become a favorite stop for the players.

``A lot of it is the small town and the relaxed atmosphere,'' said David Duval, who returns for the opening round Thursday as defending champion. ``It's a great way for the year to wind down. The environment is not as stressful as other places. It's good for people trying to get into the top 30 or top 125.''

This tranquil setting, about an hour's drive southwest of Atlanta, will go a long way toward determining some high-pressure issues.

Foremost, it's the last chance to qualify for the 30-man Tour Championship, the season-ending event that will be held next week in Houston. With a $3.4 million purse. including $612,000 to the winner, a lot of shuffling could take place on the 7,057-yard Mountain View course.

Also, the Buick Challenge is the next-to-last tournament for determining the top 125, with everyone else forced to endure the ignominy of qualifying school to retain their tour card.

The Buick Challenge is facing its own challenges.

After next year's event, Buick is dropping out as the title sponsor. Tournament officials are scrambling to secure new corporate backing, but that's no easy task in a slumping economy further burdened by terror attacks dominating the news every day.

The tournament isn't sure where it will end up on the schedule after 2002, either. There is conjecture that it will be placed opposite the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, effectively relegating it to second-class status after years of steadily improving fields.

``It's more than a little disappointing,'' Duval said. ``I actually think it's a terrible thing. It's a real shame that we're not going to have a top-tier event on one of the best golf courses we see all year.''

Tournament director Dick Ellis believes that sort of backing from the players will help ensure the standing of the Buick Challenge, or whatever it's called beginning in 2003.

``The tour knows what this tournament means to the players,'' Ellis said. ``Take a look at the field we've got here this week. It's absolutely fantastic. Except for a couple of guys, everybody is here. That speaks to the environment here, the course here, everything.''

Many of the players -- especially those with families -- rent one of Callaway's cozy cabins. The gardens also have walking trails, a butterfly exhibit, fishing ponds, a beach and, of course, plenty of flowers.

``They can have a cookout and look across the street and see one of their fellow players,'' Ellis said. ``They can almost walk to work if they want to. They can't do that at too many places I know of. It's almost like being at home.''

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who rank 1-2 in the money standings, decided to stay home this week. But 29 of the top 40 did show up, including Duval and David Toms, who captured two of the year's four majors.

Also in the field: Love, Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk.

The most interesting storyline revolves around that 30th spot on the money list. Kenny Perry has a tenuous grasp at $1,555,601 -- a mere $676 ahead of Jesper Parnevik, with another nine players within $242,554 of the cutoff.

All are playing at Callaway Gardens, knowing a victory would likely vault them into the Tour Championship.

As for this tournament, Ellis is convinced it has a place on the PGA Tour.

``I feel absolutely that we're going to be around,'' he said. ``We will have a reasonably good time slot and continue to have the same quality fields that we've had over the years.''

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