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Father-Son challenge a stand out event

Alastair Johnston doesn't remember the names of the players, only the purpose of their phone calls.

Johnston, now the president of IMG, was in the locker room at the Senior Players Championship in Michigan years ago when three players walked in and headed straight for the telephone.

``They were calling to find out how their sons had done in various events,'' Johnston said. ``It was more important to find out how their sons were doing than what they had scored that day.''

Johnston has worked for IMG most of his adult life, so the next step was obvious.

``I thought, 'Geez, we should create something to allow these guys to play with their sons,''' he said. ``Serious competition, with prize money.''

Turns out the most serious competition is getting invited to play.

That might be the hallmark of the Father/Son Challenge, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend at ChampionsGate in Orlando, Fla.

``This event will never be pressed to get a field,'' said David Charles, son of 1963 British Open champion Bob Charles. ``It's such a unique event they could have 50 teams out there.''

For years, this was the only tournament Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf played. Raymond Floyd has won it five times -- three with Raymond Jr., twice with Robert. Jack Nicklaus won with Gary in 1999, just two weeks after Gary earned his first PGA Tour card at Q-school.

The waiting list includes six-time major winner Nick Faldo. Davis Love III got in this year with 11-year-old Drew, but had to withdraw with an injury. Johnston said he expects Fred Couples and David Duval to ask for an invitation in the next few years.

``I've been around the golf industry 30 years, and I've never seen an event where players call me and say how much they really want to play,'' Johnston said. ``The lobbying comes from amazing sources.''

The Office Depot Father-Son Challenge stands out in a Silly Season that suddenly is packed with made-for-TV competition, from the UBS Cup to the Skills Challenge to the Shark Shootout.

The Skins Game, the pioneer of the Silly Season, has become a snoozer even with Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam competing against each other for the first time.

The Three-Tour Challenge matches teams from the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour and Champions Tour, but it isn't even televised until almost two months after the event (if anyone cares, the LPGA made up a nine-shot deficit on one hole and won for the only the third time in the 13-year history).

The PGA Grand Slam of Golf has the most exclusive field, restricted to the four major champions. But it had to change its dates this year (from Dec. 3-4 to Nov. 24-25) because PGA champion Vijay Singh had other plans.

No way Singh was going to miss out on the Father-Son Challenge.

``The biggest thrill I've ever had in my whole career,'' Singh said after playing last year with 14-year-old Qass.

IMG runs several tournaments around the world, from the Bay Hill Invitational to the World Match Play Championship in England to the illustrious ``Battle at the Bridges.''

But this is Johnston's baby.

It was his idea to limit the field to major champions playing with their sons, and it was his authority to change the rules whenever he sees fit -- like letting Arnold Palmer, who has two daughters, play with his grandson; and by letting Lee Janzen play with Aaron Stewart, the 15-year-old son of the late Payne Stewart.

``Next year it might be neat to have a father-daughter play,'' Johnston said. ``We're trying to do something fun. I'm not going to be (uptight) about the qualifications procedure. But this is an event I feel passionately about, and I'll keep a hands-on interest in this thing.''

He believes the Father-Son Challenge does as much to encourage children to play as any program that golf's administrators can dream up at an annual conference.

``This event should be right out there with a marketing campaign to bring kids into golf,'' he said. ``Because nothing brings kids into golf more than seeing the great names bring their kids into the game.''

The newcomer this year is two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange and 22-year-old Thomas, a senior who played briefly at North Carolina State.

Strange understands the appeal of the Father-Son Challenge.

``We all grew up on the golf course playing with our dad,'' he said. ``That's how you get introduced. And I think everyone wants to see if the genes carry through.''

Only the fathers are paid from $1 million purse. The winners get the Willie Park trophy, named after the first British Open champion whose son, Willie Park Jr., went on to win two Open titles.

None of these kids are likely to win a major, or even earn a PGA Tour card. Some of them have little interest following in the father's footsteps.

But that's not the point.

``This is an opportunity for fathers to get their sons involved in what they do,'' said David Charles, who plays from the right side and routinely launches 300-yard drives. ``It's taken seriously. We all want to beat each other. It would be great for me say I competed against Vijay Singh, the No. 1 player in the world. That's pretty special.

``But it means a lot to the fathers just to have their sons there.''

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