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New season, new course, more money

KA LUA, Hawaii (AP) -- Walking up the 18th fairway of the Plantation Course, Davis Love III felt the warm sun on his face, took a breath of the Pacific Ocean air and was ready to hit the beach.

Just like the old times at the Kapalua International during the offseason. But this time, he played nine more holes.

Maybe it was the Mercedes Championships signs around the course that got his attention. Perhaps it was the sight of David Duval, Tiger Woods, Mark O'Meara and the rest of the players who had to win a PGA Tour event last year to qualify for the tournament.

Whatever the case, it didn't take Love long to realize this wasn't another week on the beach.

``It's a little different feeling,'' he said. ``It's the start of the year, official money. I'm sure it's going to be a little more serious.''

One thing is certain: They will be playing for some serious money this year.

The Mercedes Championship kicks off a 1999 season in which total prize money will be about $134 million, an increase of nearly 40 percent from last year when golf had three players go over $2 million and 26 players earn at least $1 million.

Someone can win that much alone in one of the three World Golf Championship events that year.

``With new purses and new tournaments, those make it more exciting,'' said U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen. ``If you work hard this year and go out with a good attitude, you can do something for yourself. This has the potential to be an incredible year for somebody.''

It all starts this week after one of the shortest offseasons in any sport -- after all, it was just three weeks ago that the International drummed the Americans in the Presidents Cup.

Phil Mickelson is the defending champion of the winners-only Mercedes, which has had a purse increase typical of many PGA Tour events -- from $1.7 million last year to $2.6 million, with $468,000 going to the winner.

That's not the only change.

The Mercedes has moved to a new location for the fourth time in its 46-year history, from La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, Calif., to Kapalua, a resort course that used to be the home of a silly season event.

And for the first time, the PGA Tour will be televised live (ESPN) in prime time.

``I think that will be good,'' Couples said. ``Get home from work, turn on the tube and we're on -- especially since a lot of those states just got a foot or two of snow, and they'll see us playing in 80 degrees. I'd watch.''

What they'll see are 30 players trying to get a jumpstart on what figures to be the biggest year ever in golf. Five of the '98 winners decided not to play -- Ernie Els just got married and Lee Westwood is about to get married; Hal Sutton's wife is expecting twins any day; Olin Browne is recovering from arm surgery, and Nick Price usually doesn't make the around-the-world trip from South Africa -- even with this much money on the line.

After all, there will be plenty of tournaments this year with big-time purses -- only three regular tournaments had a $2.5 million purse last year, while all but seven will offer at least that much in 1999.

``The money isn't something you think about when you're playing, but it's awfully nice when you're done,'' said Duval, the leading money-winner a year ago with nearly $2.6 million. ``Conceivably, by the time you get to the U.S. Open, there might be a player with $3 1/2 million if he wins the right events. He could take off for the summer and say, 'See you at the Tour Championship.'''

Both Love and Couples have won twice at Kapalua, while Jim Furyk took the unofficial event here three years ago. There have been some subtle changes on the course -- three greens have been flattened to accommodate typically blustery winds off the coast of Maui.

The biggest adjustment of all might be the attitude.

``The hard thing is, the week ends Wednesday afternoon,'' Couples said. ``During the invitational (in November), it was six days of fun on the beach. You could be leading the tournament and start on the 10th hole Saturday at 7 a.m. But by 11:30, you're done and on the beach having a good time. That's what that tournament was all about.

``It's still a fun week. But it will be no fun if I finish in 28th place.''


TW 7/1/99