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Players perks go peyond increased purses

Players in this week's Ford Championship at Doral have a lot to do in between whacking range balls and playing the Blue Monster.

Tuesday, 40 guys will board helicopters to Homestead-Miami Raceway to take a few 150-mph spins in Ford-sponsored NASCAR racers.

After Thursday's first round, 50 players will head for dinner at Joe's Stone Crab and Friday another 50 will graze at Smith and Wollensky. Their money's no good at either pricey establishment. The tournament is picking up both tabs for a cool 15 grand.

These excursions are in addition to the usual tournament perks -- courtesy cars, free food and day care for the kiddies.

Is this a PGA Tour stop or a week at Club Med?

What it is, says tournament director Tom Neville, is necessary extravagance to attract players to your event.

"The guys today are so sophisticated and the money is so great, they're now playing less events and it's tougher to get the best players to come to your tournament," Neville said. ''We're trying to give the players a chance to do something they can't do anywhere else, and hope that's enough incentive to get a guy to play here.''

Incentive? How about a $5 million purse and a $140,000 limited-edition Ford GT for the winner?

That's nice, but check out the perks at the HP Classic in New Orleans: A helicopter ride to Bayou Lafitte so players can catch redfish and have chefs like Paul Prudhomme cook them on the practice range the next day, and a cooking exhibition by Emeril Lagasse for the wives.

At the Funai Classic at the Walt Disney World Resort, in addition to free tickets to the amusement parks, players' children get a chance to meet their favorite Disney character. At the Wachovia Championship last year, as a Mother's Day treat, two private jets flew the players' wives from Charlotte, N.C., to the famed Biltmore Hotel in nearby Asheville, N.C.

Perhaps the most unique perk is offered by the John Deere Classic: Players get to ride and operate bulldozers, backhoes, excavators, dump trucks and four-wheel-drive loaders at the 400-acre John Deere equipment test site in Moline, Ill.

But without question the most lucrative perk this year is being offered by the 84 Lumber Classic of Pennsylvania. Saddled with an awful date -- it's the week after the Ryder Cup and the week before the American Express Championship in Ireland -- tournament officials thought about raising the $4.2 million purse. They instead figured out a way to get players from their event to Ireland in a luxurious manner.

Players who enter the 84 Lumber Classic are eligible to travel to the AmEx in Ireland aboard one of two chartered 747s specially configured with all first-class seating and full catering. Players can bring their spouse, nanny and children, which could save them $40,000 if the group flew first class on a commercial airline.

The PGA Tour, which forbids players from receiving appearance fees from tournaments (unlike all the other major men's tours), signed off on the deal because it's being offered to every player in the AmEx field.

Of course, the multimillion-dollar question is: Do perks help land big names such as Phil Mickelson or Vijay Singh?

This year, they didn't seem to do much to help Ford's field, which attracted only six of the top 20 players in the latest world rankings. It didn't help that Ford is going against the Dubai Desert Classic (where Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and others are playing), following the water-logged World Match Play on the West Coast (prompting players such as Singh not to enter late) and even David Duval's wedding next week (Davis Love III skipped Doral to attend). Neville said he still believes perks help his event.

``What I've learned is it's a cumulative thing,'' he said. ``Last year some of the guys told the other players about getting to go to Homestead, and hopefully a couple guys are here this year because of that.''

Briny Baird, an avid fisherman, already has circled the New Orleans event on his schedule. And it has little to do with his eighth-place finish there last year.

``There's no way in the world I would ever miss that fishing trip,'' Baird said. ``I play golf to support my fishing habit.''

Nick Price, informed about Doral's perks, believes tournaments might be blowing too much money on enticements.

``They don't really have to do that,'' Price said. ``Don't get me wrong -- it's nice that they are. But if you want to get a good field, it's easy: Just have a nice purse -- it doesn't have to be huge -- and a good golf course.''

That's the approach for the March 11-14 Honda Classic at Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens, which two years ago bumped its purse from $3.5 million to $5 million and next week will unveil the Sunrise Course by top designer Tom Fazio and a new clubhouse. Honda tournament director Cliff Danley isn't about to hand the players a credit card and let them get busy on Worth Avenue.

``We just put on a good tournament,'' he said. ``I don't put a bottle of champagne in everybody's locker when they get here. That's not our way, and that's not Honda's way. Honda is successful based on putting out a good product. We think our clubhouse and the normal amenities are as good as there are on Tour.''

Honda's field won't be finalized until Friday night, but they've already received commitments from top players such as Love, David Toms, John Daly, Fred Couples and defending champion Justin Leonard. Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman also are considering playing. So Danley isn't rethinking his approach on perks, even while his closest competition (Doral) offers more than ever.

``I don't think it hurts us,'' Danley said. ``What are the reasons why guys play? The date, the course, the purse. I don't know if guys are going to play some place over another because of the perks.''

Champions Tour President Rick George, who for the past five years thought up all those tasty perks in New Orleans as its tournament director, believes they can improve a field. That in turn increases TV ratings and attendance. And he didn't gear his efforts strictly toward the players.

``I learned a long time ago that if their spouse and children have a good experience, there's a good chance the player will come back, even if they played poorly,'' George said. ``It's all about building relationships on Tour. Every tournament has got to have its own personal touch.''

The PGA Tour doesn't have a problem with the perks as long as all the players in the field have an opportunity to partake; you can't give Daly a free suite and not offer that to the 143 other players. The Tour certainly doesn't mind the tournaments sweetening the perks every year.

``As long as they keep it within reason,'' said Sid Wilson, the Tour's vice president of player relations. ``We don't want to see it becoming a bidding war -- you top this or that. But everything out here is about competition and distinguishing your event from another event.''

Danley says he won't get involved in the perks battle. He doesn't think they automatically enhance your field and he doesn't want to lose sight of the bottom-line effect on a tournament.

``We're here to try and give money to charity, and every dollar we spend on things like that is one less dollar we'll be giving to charity,'' he said.

Neville agrees, to a point. ``This is a business,'' he said, ``but you've got to try and compete for these players as hard as you can.''

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