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The NEC World Series of Golf is supposed to be a near major,
with a field limited to tournament winners, a $2 million purse
and, for the victor, a 10-year exemption. But for three years
the play at Firestone Country Club in Akron has been
overshadowed--by violence, by scandal, by a brawl and by Tiger

At 3 p.m. last Saturday, 35 minutes after leader Phil Mickelson
had begun his round, taking a horde of spectators with him, a
cardboard trash bin exploded behind the 1st tee, injuring three
people and producing a cannonlike boom that was heard across the
course. Coincidentally, the explosion erupted at almost the same
spot where John Daly and the 62-year-old father of Jeffrey Roth
wrestled one another to the ground in 1994 after Daly had twice
nearly driven the ball into Roth's group. The blast behind the
1st tee on Saturday, and the incident two years ago with Daly,
created more talk, and had greater consequences, than the
routine wins by Jose Maria Olazabal in 1994 and Mickelson this

After the fight in '94, Daly avoided suspension by withdrawing
from the Tour for the rest of the year, and last week's
explosion at the World Series might force the Tour to use metal
detectors--and have a regular police presence--at its events.

The incidents in '94 and last week were not the only black marks
for the tournament recently. Last year's World Series was marred
by the Greg Norman-Mark McCumber affair, in which Norman accused
McCumber of cheating, and the difference between a bug and a
blade of grass became a matter of honor and acrimony. The
episode proved that one of the few people capable of upstaging
Norman when he wins is Norman.

For the last three years the World Series has also been pushed
aside by Woods's dramatics at the U.S. Amateur, which is held
the same weekend as the Series. NEC is probably more thankful
than Nike that Woods is turning pro.

Despite the loud boom, the explosion on Saturday turned out to
be relatively minor. Thankfully, the area around the blast was
largely deserted--the people injured were a volunteer and two
spectators heading for the tournament exit--and the explosive
device found made it look like the work of a prankster, not the
Unabomber. The preliminary investigation by the Akron police
department suggested a homemade firework, along the lines of an
M-80 or M-100, which has the equivalent firepower of about a
quarter stick of dynamite. Patrick Berarducci, a special agent
from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said on
Sunday, "There's a whole range of possibilities as to what the
explosive could have been. The exact components and substance
have to be determined by the lab." The evidence has been sent to
the ATF lab in Rockville, Md., for testing.

The suspects in the blast are two young men who were seen
dropping something into the trash bin. As SI went to press, no
arrests had been made.

What was sobering about the incident, besides the injuries, was
the sight of yellow crime scene tape stretched between trees and
gallery stakes at an otherwise serene golf tournament. Agents in
ATF jackets sifted through debris. A woman had blood running
down her leg. An older man covered his ringing ears with shaking
hands. Powder from the explosive and shredded beer cans lay near
the 1st tee. Akron's deputy police chief even referred to the
location of the explosion as "the grassy knoll."

Sobering, too, was the recognition of how vulnerable golfers are
at tournaments. Luckily, the spectators near the blast were
given a little warning to move away from the area by the pop of
the ignition and the initial smoke from the explosive. If the
bin had exploded 45 minutes earlier, about 1,000 fans of Norman
would have been around the tee, and many would have been close
to the blast site.

"I think it's just sad that some clown thinks he can get his
thrills from hurting people," Norman said on Saturday. "We don't
need that in golf. We don't need it anywhere in the world,
especially after what we saw in Atlanta."

Mickelson was playing the 3rd hole at the time of the blast. "I
heard it, but I assumed it was nothing," he said on Saturday. "I
didn't think twice about it until we were told what happened
when we came in on 18. I can't believe the stupidity of some

"Golf is scary because there is close interaction with fans,"
Mickelson added. "Who's to say a person might not come out with
a gun or a knife, like what happened to Monica Seles?"

On Sunday the security guards at the front gate of the course,
who usually confiscate cameras and coolers as well as check
press badges, tickets and, occasionally, the contents of bags,
were noticeably more thorough. Uniformed officers, some on
horseback, were at every entrance and were scattered throughout
the course. Even the K-9 corps was on the case.

For most of the golfers, however, the incident was quickly
forgotten. Mickelson had difficulty sleeping on Saturday night
but not because he was concerned about explosives on the course.
What kept him awake were thoughts of what he could accomplish on
Sunday. The win would be his fourth of the season and the ninth
of his career, and it would make the Player of the Year race
with PGA champion Mark Brooks competitive again. The victory
would also give Mickelson a quarter-million-dollar cushion over
Brooks on the money list this year.

After Mickelson won by three strokes--he birdied two of the last
three holes to pull out of a tie with Billy Mayfair--he said he
was encouraged by winning on a challenging course that was set
up as if for a major championship. "To perform well on this
style of course is a big step up for my performance in future
majors," he said.

But the most important thing, according to the 26-year-old
Mickelson, was the 10-year exemption. "You don't have to worry
about making the top 125 on the money list," said Mickelson, who
has never yet had to worry about making the top 125. "[Not
needing to qualify] gives me the opportunity to attack and play
just to win tournaments."

Mickelson's only concern after his win was the fate of Mayfair,
who has become his good friend and who finished tied for second
for the second straight year at Firestone. "Will Billy make the
Presidents Cup?" Mickelson asked at his posttournament press

In fact, Mayfair needed to win the tournament to be among the
automatically exempt top 10 on the Presidents Cup points list.
He finished 15th, and his only hope for making the team lay in
being selected by Arnold Palmer, the captain. (Palmer said two
weeks ago that he would select the 11th and 12th players on the
points list, who are David Duval and Kenny Perry.)

Said Mickelson, "It was a difficult round for me because I
wanted Billy to play well. I felt that he was pulling for me,
and I know I was pulling for him. It's tough going head-to-head
when you care about the other person and want him to do well."

When asked about his win's being dwarfed by Woods's third
straight victory at the U.S. Amateur, Mickelson put Woods's
accomplishment in perspective. "The Amateur was the toughest
tournament for me to win," he said. "You have to play nine
rounds of golf, and some of them just aren't going to be the
best. His level of consistency at age 20 amazes me."

Four tournament wins and $1,574,799 in earnings this year
suggest that Mickelson's level of consistency isn't so bad

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Mickelson, who won by three, felt chipper about his 10-year exemption. [Phil Mickelson golfing]

COLOR PHOTO: JEFF GLIDDEN/AP Police combed the site where three people were hurt.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Mayfair is not on the Presidents Cup team. Where is he? (Hint: Look for a striped shirt and a club.) [Billy Mayfair in crowd]