NEC Invitational
NEC Invitational
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Second world championship event comes to Firestone
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NEC Invitational News
Second world championship event comes to Firestone

This is one week where it really does pay to play in the Ryder Cup.

The NEC Invitational, the most exclusive of the World Golf Championship events, begins Thursday at Firestone Country Club with a 41-man field comprised only of the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams.

The Ryder Cup is four weeks away, and the NEC Invitational in some way resembles a preview of the matches. Just look at some of the first-round pairings -- David Duval and Sergio Garcia, Tiger Woods and Jose Maria Olazabal.

Only this isn't match play, it's 72 holes of stroke play.

And this isn't about playing for a flag, but playing for the money -- a lot of it.

The $5 million purse pays out a cool $1 million to the winner. That's for his bank account, not his favorite charity.

"It's a neat concept because it's obviously taking the best of the best -- in essence, the Presidents Cup teams and the Ryder Cup teams," Tiger Woods said today. "Since I'm on the team, I don't mind it."

But Woods does not believe that the NEC Invitational is an indirect compensation for players on either team.

"It's another week we have to play in order to make the money," he said.

The NEC Invitational replaces the World Series of Golf, a field of worldwide winners who have gathered at Firestone every year since 1976. But not every international player who qualified bothered to come, especially because it ran up against important events on the European Tour.

That's not the case this year, perhaps because of the $5 million purse, or that it offers a chance to see Ryder Cup foes up close just a month before the matches.

"A lot of guys on the European Ryder Cup team, it will be their last event before they head out to Europe and come back," Greg Norman said. "They want to leave America leaving the statement. And yet there might be some who say, 'I don't really want to get too far in tune four weeks out.'

"But I definitely believe the players, as competitive as they are, will be going in with that attitude."

In a controlled but blind draw, tournament officials tried to match an American against an international player in the first round. That resulted in six U.S.-Europe pairings, also including Phil Mickelson and Jean Van de Velde, Payne Stewart and Paul Lawrie, Jeff Maggert and Lee Westwood, and Tom Lehman and Miguel Angel Jimenez.

Woods, for one, isn't willing to read too much into the pairings or the concept of the field.

"It's just another stroke-play event," he said. "Maybe it would be different if it was ... a three-way match kind of a thing. But since we're all here playing stroke play, it's very similar to what we play anyway, the World Series of Golf."

Of the three World Golf Championship events, the NEC Invitational is the only one that doesn't rely on world rankings or money lists.

That explains why Frank Nobilo (157th on the PGA Tour money list) and Andrew Coltart (No. 69 in the world ranking) are at Firestone this week and Chris Perry (11th on the money list) and Steve Stricker (No. 27 in the world ranking) are not.

Still, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem points out that only the top players can make the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams. The International team is determined by world rankings, the U.S. teams on top-10 finishes (Ryder Cup) and money list (Presidents Cup), and Europe on earnings over a 12-month period.

The result?

"I don't know of any other years if you had a stronger field than this one," Olazabal said. "They prove they are really good and consistent."

Finchem tried to put to rest the flap over the Ryder Cup revenue by saying it was not inappropriate for player to want to know the financial structure of the Ryder Cup, or wanting some of the money directed to the charities of their choice.

The PGA of America has said it will come up with such a plan by the end of the year.

"This matter is conceptually, at this point, resolved," Finchem said. "It is only a matter of the details to be worked out, and it will be worked out. The players that I have talked to are preparing for this competition. And I would hope that they would be allowed to do that without significant, additional distraction."

Duval is the defending World Series champion and will try to become the first player to win back-to-back official events at Firestone since Jack Nicklaus won the PGA Championship in 1975 and the World Series a year later.

Olazabal, who shattered Firestone scoring records in 1990 with a 61 and an 18-under 262, and Norman will try to become the first three-time champion on the 7,139-yard course that plays to a par of 70.

Phil Mickelson, Tom Lehman, Davis Love III and Justin Leonard are among 19 players who are trying to win their first tournament of the year.

"You're going to see some great golf here this week from a lot of very talented players," Ernie Els said.

And there will be a lot of money on the line for the one who plays the best.