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US Tour players get wired

Other than their clubs, the most important piece of equipment golfers take on tour these days may be a computer aimed at making life easier for these independent contractors.

John Cook uses it to commit to tournaments. Phil Mickelson spends time on aeroplanes checking out the best restaurants in the city where he is going. Lanny Wadkins has an idea whether to expect rain or shine before he even arrives at an event.

And all of the nearly 200 players connected through "PGA Tour Links" no longer need a meeting with commissioner Tim Finchem to air their complaints, just the push of a button on their IBM ThinkPad.

"That's one of the more interesting things in this system," commissioner Tim Finchem said. "I'm not sure I agree with that, but we are getting good volume."

PGA Tour Links grew out of the tour's 10-year extension with IBM as one of its corporate sponsors. IBM has been in charge of the elaborate scoring system since 1993, and Finchem was interested in taking technology to the players.

"We started to focus on the question how we might use new technologies to impact not just the business lives of our players, but also the ability to communicate effectively with our membership and our players," Finchem said.

Two years of research was followed by about six months of testing with a core group of 20 players representing a wide range of computer expertise, from Generation X to Generation Smith-Corona.

In January, the tour and IBM began rolling out the program by giving a Thinkpad to every exempt player on tour. Finchem wants the Senior Tour players to be linked by next year.

"One of the things we are proudest of is we are the first major sport that has been able to Internet-connect to all of our players," Finchem said.

Perhaps no other sport needs that as much as the PGA Tour.

Finchem prefers to call his players independent contractors, which they are. They keep their own schedules, play when and where they want (provided they qualify for the stronger events), sign their own deals and pay their own way.

The only mandatory "team meeting" all year is at The Players Championship. No one gets fined for showing up late, or not showing up at all.

"We don't always have the players in one place," Finchem said. ``This opens up a whole range of new communication benefits."

Tour officials say 90 percent of the players are logging on to the "Links" for about an hour a day.

"I knew very little about computers before this program," Billy Andrade said. "I think it's fantastic. Now, after finishing a round, instead of turning on the TV, I go online and read my hometown paper (The Providence Journal)."

Finchem says about 30 percent of the players are entering tournaments through Tour Links instead of by phone, but the potential applications are limitless.

Players can check their stock performances or check their ranking for greens in regulation. They can check their position on the money list or the world ranking, sign up for day care or for a courtesy car.

From Finchem's standpoint, perhaps the most valuable aspect is communications.

Long before the ThinkPads arrived, the tour distributed a "green sheet" each week that informed players of such things as changes in the course setup, purse distribution in pro-ams and where the next players' meeting would take place.

Now, that information is available as soon as a player logs on to Tour Links.

Eventually, Finchem says he will be able to poll players on any number of issues -- such as whether the Stadium Course on the TPC at Sawgrass was too difficult or the voting for player of the year.

Cook was one of those players with limited computer knowledge. His only experience was in college, when he used program cards and tried to get through the stack "without blowing the computer up."

"I thought that I would get it and then it would just kind of go away like a lot of other stuff I get," he said of Tour Links. "But it really started to intrigue me."

Cook keeps tabs on his stocks and his statistics, and he rarely gets through a day without checking the Ohio State Web site.

"The only problems we can see is for guys that have early tee times," Cook said. "You get on after dinner and by the time you know it, it's midnight and you've got to be up at 5 a.m. That's the only drawback."

Particularly helpful for Cook is the fact he is one of four player-directors on the board.

"I don't want to be out trying to win a golf tournament and talking about issues," he said. "Hopefully, they have my e-mail address and they can write to me right away."