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Big names heading for Masters tune up

Scott McCarron won the BellSouth Classic last year, but it didn't earn him a trip to Augusta National. He spent Masters week moving into a new home.

``I think that's a silly rule,'' said McCarron, who qualified this year by finishing 23rd on the money list. ``I really wish they would change that.''

So does the BellSouth Classic, which is struggling to maintain its niche on the PGA Tour.

The Masters used to invite all tour winners from the previous year -- even those who won the week before. In 1996, Paul Stankowski headed straight to Augusta after winning the BellSouth.

The ``road to Augusta'' concept was one of the reasons the Atlanta-area tournament was excited about getting the pre-Masters slot on a regular basis beginning in 1999.

The following year, however, the Masters revamped its criteria in an effort to strengthen its field, and the emphasis shifted to world ranking and money list.

Suddenly, that pre-Masters date wasn't so appealing.

Several top players, notably Tiger Woods and David Duval, won't be playing in this year's BellSouth, which begins Thursday at the TPC at Sugarloaf.

Woods likes to rest the week before Augusta, which means he's unlikely ever to return to the BellSouth as long as it holds the current spot on the schedule. He won the event in 1998, when it was played in May.

Even without Woods, a last chance to qualify for the Masters would have added to the BellSouth's luster. That's all changed now.

``They really missed the boat with these world rankings getting guys into the Masters,'' McCarron said.

The BellSouth still managed to land plenty of big names, including Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Vijay Singh, U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and PGA Championship winner David Toms.

The timing also brought foreign players such as Colin Montgomerie, Thomas Bjorn, Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington to Sugarloaf for a Masters tuneup.

Nevertheless, BellSouth officials would like to move the tournament later in the year -- unlikely to happen under the new TV contract that runs through 2006.

Love, who lives in Georgia and is a former PGA Tour policy board member, said he would prefer the BellSouth be played at a different time largely because of the weather.

Wretched conditions have prevented the tournament from making a halfway cut on schedule since 1997. Last year, McCarron had to play 36 holes on the final day to win.

``We've definitely had some weather issues over the last few years,'' McCarron said. ``We've had cold, tornadoes, rain -- but we keep getting the tournament in.''

Love also worries about playing such a physically demanding tournament the week before the Masters. Caddies say they cover nine miles walking the hilly, sprawling course, though course superintendent Mike Crawford says it's only about seven.

Either way, Sugarloaf requires a lot more hoofing than the tournament's former home, Atlanta Country Club, which was only about five miles around.

The event moved to Sugarloaf in 1997.

``I thought Atlanta Country Club had more intimacy,'' Atlanta resident Billy Andrade said. ``Sugarloaf is just so big. In retrospect, it might not have been the best move.''

One scheduling possibility is two weeks after the Masters. The Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic currently has that spot, but officials of that event want to move to the fall.

``Obviously, jumping into Greensboro's spot would probably be better for Atlanta,'' Love said.

Executive director Dave Kaplan isn't very hopeful. He already has received his next four dates from the tour, which keep the BellSouth in the pre-Masters date.

``We're going to keep trying,'' Kaplan said. ``We've told them not to forget about us.''

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