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WGC events already lost their lustre

Umbrellas were in, sunglasses out. Fans walked about Mount Juliet in golf shoes with metal spikes, something only seen (and heard) in Europe. No one in the gallery was drinking beer at 9 a.m. and screaming "Get in the hole!" when someone teed off on a par 5.

Take away the $7 million purse, and the 2004 American Express Championship three months ago felt like a regular European Tour event.

And it's not much different when the World Golf Championships come to the United States. Even with the inflated prize money, it's getting hard to distinguish between them and most other PGA Tour events.

Ernie Els earned $1.2 million for winning his first World Golf Championship at Mount Juliet two weeks after the 2004 Ryder Cup Matches. Sergio Garcia got nearly $1.05 million for winning his first EDS Byron Nelson Championship in Dallas a few months earlier.

"They're like big American events," Nick Faldo said. "The problem is, there are so many good events in America worth $5 to $6 million, that to jump on a plane and fly here for $7 million is 'whoop-dee-doo.' It's almost like they need to make these $15 million to get everyone's attention."

It didn't help when six players from the top 50 decided not to play the American Express Championship for a variety of reasons, most of them sound.

Nick Price stayed home because Hurricane Jeanne was on its way as his family was still recovering from Frances. Vijay Singh checked out when he found his Florida home without power from a hurricane (several players figured it was the Fijian who was out of gas from winning so much).

Phil Mickelson pulled out for "personal reasons," although he played in Las Vegas the next week.

Something needs to be done to resurrect the World Golf Championships, which just finished their sixth official season and already have become stale.

"We just have a few issues that need to be corrected," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said.

Money isn't the answer, although an argument can be made.

When the World Golf Championships began in 1999, the prize money was $5 million with $1 million going to the winner, the only seven-figure payoff at an official tournament. The only events that offered more than $3 million in prize money were the majors, the Players Championship and the Tour Championship.

Now, there are 25 tournaments worth at least $5 million, and 12 players cashed checks worth at least $1 million in 2004. So why go to Ireland for a chance to win $1.2 million when a player can almost get that much in Dallas?

"I honestly don't think money is the factor that will drive intensity," Finchem said. "It's what players hear about the tournaments, how fans feel about them. The fans want to hear it's an important tournament."

The courses haven't helped.

A year ago, the American Express was played somewhere north of Atlanta, south of Tennessee and so far in the middle of nowhere that watching for the blimp was the easiest way to find Capital City Club. Mount Juliet is hidden in southeastern Ireland, two hours from both Dublin and Galway.

Finchem has reason to be optimistic.

The American Express will be held at Harding Park in San Francisco in 2005, and outside London at The Grove in 2006. Those are cities that can get enthused about any golf, let alone one that brings together (most of) the world's best players.

Finchem also says he would like to get back to Bellerive in St. Louis, which was shaping up as the grandest of WGC events until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks canceled the 2001 tournament.

"If you're going to try to make this stand out in the fall, everything has to be a hit," Finchem said. "You have to have a golf course everyone is excited about. There needs to be some intensity, not just competitively, but also in terms of the feel of the event."

Creating a buzz is no small task, and Finchem can only hope it helps.

Since the commissioner is accused of stealing the idea of a World Golf Championship from Greg Norman, perhaps he should go back to the Shark's original concept of small fields for only the elite players.

The NEC Invitational at Firestone began as a tournament for only Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup players. When too many players complained they were being left out, the NEC added the top 50 in the world ranking and certain tournament winners, nearly doubling the size of the field.

"I'm a big believer that the best players in the world have to get some perks. I believed that even when I wasn't in the NEC," said Brad Faxon, who last played in a cup in 1997. "Too many players complained about it. Well, tough luck."

The only thing that has helped the WGC is the quality of winners -- Tiger Woods in eight of the 16 he has played, Darren Clarke twice, Mike Weir, Els, Stewart Cink after being picked for the Ryder Cup team, and a collection of lower-ranked players at the Accenture Match Play, a product of the fickle format.

One suggestion was to devise a points system from WGC events and crown a world champion at the end of year.

"That would be making something up," Faxon said. "And that's still not going to get Phil here, is it?"

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