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Top names set for Bay Hill Invitational

If the calibre of play really mattered on the PGA Tour, the most important document this year would be the scorecard from Spyglass Hill the day Phil Mickelson shot 62.

But what seems to count more than who wins is who plays.

Maybe that's why the document generating the biggest buzz these days is a letter from IMG that smacks of appearance money and projects a sense of desperation among PGA Tour events to attract a good field.

The Bay Hill Invitational has no such problems.

It has a beloved tournament host in Arnold Palmer, a favorable spot on the schedule with The Players Championship and Masters around the corner, and Tiger Woods lives just down the street.

Woods, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen are not only playing in the same tournament, they'll be in the same group the first two rounds at Bay Hill.

Not every PGA Tour event is so fortunate.

That's one reason IMG sent a proposal to various sponsors aimed at beefing up the field.

The proposal includes a menu of players and their price range for a Monday outing the week of the tournament. There was no guarantee they would stick around for the tournament because that would constitute an appearance fee, which is not allowed on the PGA Tour. Instead, there was a pledge they would ``look favorably upon staying.''

It worked for the Ford Championship at Doral two weeks ago. It paid a reported $600,000 for the foursome of Goosen, Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington to play golf with top customers. Sure enough, all found it in their best interests to tee it up three days later on the Blue Monster.

The push for a strong field is nothing new. Tournaments long have clamored for the big names of the era, whether it was Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Curtis Strange, Greg Norman, Fred Couples or Woods.

``Unfortunately, it's show business,'' said Larry Thiel, tournament director at the International. ``We're driven by the marquee value of the players in the field.''

Appearance money in disguise is nothing new, either.

Some 20 years ago, sponsors used to meet with IMG to figure out which players would be invited to a corporate outing in Canada called the ``Chairman's Days.'' Lo and behold, these players inevitably stuck around for the Canadian Open. And just last year, the 84 Lumber Classic offered six first-class seats on a charter to the World Golf Championship in Ireland for those who played in its tournament. The value was estimated at close to $50,000.

That must have looked like chump change compared to the menu IMG served up.

The rate was between $100,000 and $200,000 for players like Singh, Garcia, Goosen and Ernie Els. The price range was between $50,000 and $100,000 for the likes of David Duval, Mike Weir, Fred Couples and Jim Furyk.

But conspicuously missing was the one guy who sells tickets and spikes TV ratings.

Why wasn't he on the menu?

``Don't even go there,'' Woods said Tuesday, sensing no way out of the impending question.

While Ford paid $600,000 for its star foursome, that money wouldn't even get Woods for nine holes. Woods commands about $3 million to play overseas, where appearance money is allowed. Industry insiders say he would get at least $1 million for a one-day corporate outing like the one at Doral.

That Woods can get that much money raises questions about what constitutes a strong field. It's hard to imagine the ``Ford Foursome'' generated ticket sales. All they did was give the tournament strength in numbers.

Give tournament directors this choice: Only one of the top 10 in the world with that one being Woods, or eight of the top 10 without Woods?

Steve Wilmot of the MCI Heritage opted for eight out of 10, only because Harbourtown can't accommodate many more fans than it already gets. Thiel also would prefer eight of 10 at the International, but that's the purist in him.

The realistic side tells him differently.

``In this world today of satisfying sponsors and ad agencies, and with the return on investments that only can be measured by ratings, that in itself says to everybody, 'You better get Tiger in your field if you want to end up having ratings that are meaningful,''' Thiel said.

``Golf is all about Tiger. He's the engine that is driving television, and television is the engine that drives the tour.''

Woods doesn't find fault with Ford or any other tournament willing to shell out money for a good field, especially during his campaign for a shorter season.

``There are 48 events, and with the economy the way it is right now, the players aren't going to be playing 38 events,'' Woods said. ``So it's tough to get all of the guys. And that's one way of getting the guys. You've seen what they did up in Nemacolin (84 Lumber Classic), down at Doral. They do perks, and that's one way of getting around it to make sure you get a quality field.''

The issue will be sorted out this weekend when tournament sponsors have their annual meeting at PGA Tour headquarters. Maybe then, the focus can return to some phenomenal golf being played this year, even at the tournaments that don't have the strongest fields.


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