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Final PGA stop at Callaway Gardens

The story has been going around for years, although Davis Love III swears it's not true. He insists he never showed up for an afternoon tee time at Callaway Gardens with traces of black camouflage paint around his eyes.

"I don't ever have any black on," Love said.

Then he paused and grinned, knowing what was coming next.

"I do get up early and go hunting, though," he said.

Ever shoot anything in the woods before shooting birdies on the golf course?

"Not before I teed off, no," Love said.

Another smile.

"But in the afternoon, I've gotten a couple of deer."

Is this a PGA Tour event or an escape to the great outdoors of western Georgia?

Both. That's why the Buick Challenge will be missed by so many players.

"When I think of Callaway Gardens, I think of quiet," Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange said. "It's nice after the hustle and bustle of the year to go to an event that's really laid back. All the guys stay together. Everybody cooks one night."

For one last time this week, the Mountain View course will host a strong field, nearly three dozen of the top 50 players on the PGA Tour money list. While Callaway Gardens is a favorite stop among players, it is a graveyard for corporate sponsorship.

And that's what makes the PGA Tour go round.

"It's all about corporate entertainment," Love said. "And you can't do that in Pine Mountain, Georgia."

Callaway Gardens never has been a hotbed of corporate activity. The Sunday gallery is barely enough to line the 18th fairway. PGA Tour events during football season are a tough sell, and it's even tougher when the closest thing to a big city (Columbus, Ga.) is 45 minutes away.

So it's not surprising that Buick decided to end its title sponsorship after 12 years.

After the company signed Tiger Woods to a five-year endorsement deal, a top Buick executive was asked whether it was important for golf's biggest star to come to Callaway Gardens. The executive shrugged: Who would watch?

Callaway Gardens continues to search for a replacement title sponsor, although no one is knocking down the door, and PGA Tour spokesman Bob Combs confirmed that the tournament is not on the 2003 schedule.

"It's obviously a popular event, but without a sponsorship base, we're not in a position to hold that week on the calendar," Combs said.

He said the tour hopes to bring a Senior PGA Tour event to the area.

Then the older guys will have all the fun.

"I love the intimacy of the event," said David Duval, who won the Buick Challenge two years ago. "It's nice after all the big events you play. It's got a down-home feeling. And to top it off, it's probably one of the top five golf courses we play all year. People rave about Riviera. This golf course is every bit as good, probably better."

And that's just the golf.

The real treat is away from the course, where players stay in cabins tucked into thick patches of Georgia pines. For those who don't hunt or fish, Callaway Gardens offers beautiful lakes, nature trails and its famous butterfly gardens.

After hours, players congregate on the back porches of their cabins and fire up the grill. Love usually brings his pig roaster.

Mike Hulbert "and I stick our nose out the window every night to see who's cooking," Strange said.

In a perfect world, a tournament that began in 1970 and is a favorite among so many players would stay on the schedule. It's a nice change from the corporate atmosphere at Phoenix and Flint and Dallas, which has transformed golf tournaments into golf expositions.

But that would come at a price.

Corporate involvement is the reason total prize money on the PGA Tour has surpassed $200 million this year. One of the new tournaments next year is a $5 million event in Charlotte, where Love said the corporate tents sold out immediately.

Like many players, Love has mixed feelings about the demise of Callaway Gardens. "You can't lose all your history, but you can't keep it all, either," Love said. "Some ballparks we want to see forever are gone. Some of our football fields are gone. That's part of progress, and sometimes progress isn't always good.

"But you've got to keep going."

Phil Mickelson, David Toms, Love and Duval are among the top players in the field. The golf will be serious, with several players trying to make the top 30 on the money list to get into the Tour Championship, and others trying to keep their tour cards.

Still, it's hard not to enjoy a peaceful, quiet week at Callaway Gardens.

"It's a great place to go and take a dozen people and get away from everything," Toms said.

That's what made it such a great stop.

And why it couldn't survive.

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