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84 Lumber Classic growing in stature

There were more than a few smiles two years ago when the fabulously wealthy Joe Hardy suggested that his 84 Lumber Classic would someday become golf's fifth major.

That may never happen to his tournament or any other. But what started out last year as just another lower-tier event during an oft-ignored portion of the PGA Tour schedule is showing signs of becoming a first: a fall tournament with a strong field.

With Hardy splurging on amenities like few other sponsors, the field for this year's tournament was substantially upgraded, from only one of the top 20 money winners in 2003 to nearly two-thirds of the top 30 -- including world No. 1 Vijay Singh, who won Sunday.

The attendance was up substantially, too, from minuscule turnouts during mostly poor weather in 2003 to the tens of thousands that turned up Saturday and Sunday, crowds that rivaled or surpassed those for summertime tournaments.

As they left Sunday, the players were still talking about the free plane rides to Ireland, the weekly gifts sent to their homes, the Hummer loaners and the weeklong pampering their families received at the deep-in-the-country resort where the tournament is played. As a result, Hardy may be well on his way to getting the kind of field and attention he wants for his pet project.

John Daly, sponsored by 84 Lumber and the tournament's unofficial host and talent procurer, thinks most of the world Top 50 will show up next year with no Ryder Cup to interfere.

``It's going to become the best venue on Tour outside of a major, I really believe that,'' said Daly, who won $72,000 of Hardy's money by tying for 13th place. ``I think the players will come here and see it, and are going to believe it as well.''

Count Stewart Cink among the believers.

Cink, fifth on the money list, showed up at the opulent Nemacolin Woodlands resort mostly for the free plane ride. Hardy offered to fly any player and four guests to this week's World Golf Championship event in Ireland for free if he played in the 84 Lumber.

Despite being frustrated and weary from the United States' Ryder Cup loss the week before, Cink thought it was too good a deal to pass up. Because he did, he took second and won $453,600.

``As far as the way they have gone out and really used hospitality and amenities and service to attract the players, I think it's going to be impossible for the other tournaments not to step up their game,'' Cink said. ``Mr. Hardy really has his heart and soul behind this place and it shows. He wants us to be premier here.''

Even if other tournaments upgrade their perks, Hardy -- owner and founder of 84 Lumber, the nation's largest privately held lumber company -- has shown a willingness to practice one-upmanship.

Just this year, he built a $60 million-plus clubhouse and resort hotel next to the course to house the top players. Other stayed at the resort's grandiose lodge, one of the ritziest on the East Coast. Singh felt so pampered he stayed there rather than accepting one of the private suites at the clubhouse.

Hardy also ordered every green rebuilt and additional changes to make the 7,471-yard Mystic Rock course more competitive after J.L. Lewis' winning score last year was 22 under par. This year, Lewis shot 79 in the opening round and missed the cut.

Daly is so close to Hardy he calls him ``Dad,'' a reflection of the relationship built between the two when Hardy helped him through alcohol rehabilitation. Daly has worked tirelessly to land players for the tournament, even extracting a short-lived commitment from Tiger Woods that was rescinded following the United States' wipeout in the Ryder Cup.

``He owes me,'' Daly said.

There is speculation Hardy may push for a summertime date, so he can sell more tickets rather than give them away and make attendance less dependent on the weather. Also, the PGA Tour's post-major events tend to get lost amid the fall sports glut of NFL and college football and pennant-race baseball.

``But this (the fall) is the perfect time for it,'' Daly said. ``I think next year, you don't have the Ryder Cup to deal with, and I think you will see everybody here, from what the players are telling me. It's so nice here, the wives get on the husband's backs and say, 'Uh-huh, we're playing.'''

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