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Strong field for final Air Canada event

The Air Canada Championship has assembled possibly the best field in its seven-year history for what is expected to be its final playing.

Air Canada is ending its four-year sponsorship of the $3.5 million tournament after the final round Sunday, and last week's announcement that Royal Bank would not increase its financial commitment leaves the event without a title sponsor for next year.

``Until the Tour says, `We re sorry, there are no dates,' who knows what can happen?'' said tournament co-chair Len Dodson. ``When all of the September dates fill up, that's when we know we're no longer a member of the PGA Tour. Until then, we keep trying.''

Many of the golfers talked Wednesday about the positive aspects of the Vancouver area as a Tour stop.

``I ve got great memories here, so I'd hate to see it go,'' said Canadian Mike Weir, who won the 1999 tournament for his first PGA Tour title. ``It holds special memories for me, obviously, and it's one of only two events we have in Canada, so we don t want to lose it.''

The tournament, played as the Greater Vancouver Open for the first three years, usually has struggled to attract top players. But with the NEC Invitational outside Seattle last week, organizers have attracted 16 of the Tour's top 50 money-winners.

Fred Funk and Robert Allenby, who tied for second in the NEC Invitational, both made the short trip to the Northview Golf and Country Club, located 45 minutes outside Vancouver.

Vijay Singh and Shigeki Maruyama, both in the top 10 on the money list, also made the trip, and Chris Riley came to Vancouver after winning last week's Reno-Tahoe Open.

``If I'd known the weather was going to be like this, I would have settled down here,'' said Singh, eighth in the NEC and 11th in the PGA Championship. ``It's one of the prettiest places I've been, so I'd like to see somebody else pick the tournament up, and definitely I will be here if it is on. If not, hopefully I can finish the golf with a good memory here.''

It might take a score in the 20-under par range for Singh to get his wish.

After complaints from several players about U.S. Open-length rough last year, organizers trimmed the thick rough that guarded the par-71, Arnold Palmer-designed course. Most players agreed that it might take another week like Joel Edwards' record-tying 19-under last year to win the tournament.

``The rough is a little easier this year. It was very thick and gnarly last year,'' Jesper Parnevik said.

For Funk, who tied for third last year, skipping the event was never an option, not even after a whirlwind month in which he had top-four finishes in four of his last five events.

``I never considered pulling out of this one,'' said Funk, adding he would withdraw from next week's Canadian Open because of fatigue. ``I had promised I would do anything I could to help this tournament find a potential sponsor -- go to dinner and sell the tournament, whatever.

``If I had any kind of influence at all, I was going to do it, but it doesn't sound like there's anybody to listen at the moment.''


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