For years the Doral-Ryder Open has been considered the
unofficial start of the PGA Tour season. Last week's event,
however, was more like the unofficial start of spring break.
Never have so many top players decided that Doral was the time
to gear down, not up.
Caught in the deadly wake of the Tour's new big-deal Andersen
Consulting Match Play championship, the folks at Doral were left
with a watered-down field, even after a 50% purse increase from
$2 million to $3 million. Only 24 of the 64 players who teed it
up at the match play event came to Doral, and fourth-ranked
Ernie Els was the lone player among the top seven to show up.
(Even Els admitted he had planned to skip Doral until he lost in
the first round at La Costa.) Missing in action were Florida
residents Tiger Woods, David Duval and Mark O'Meara, as well as
Davis Love III, whose Sea Island, Ga., house is just 30 miles
across the Florida border. How bad was the field? An even more
startling statistic was that only 66 of the top 125 money
winners from last year's Tour were in attendance. That's Doral
Doral did have its share of ranked players. The Nike tour
players and Q school graduates, reordered based on their
winnings after the West Coast swing, flooded the field, from No.
1 Chris Riley, a former UNLV star who turned professional in
1996, all the way to No. 55 and last place Scott Dunlap, a
35-year-old journeyman who once played tournament golf on five
continents in the same year and last week hung in to tie for
third and collect his biggest paycheck ever, $135,300. The best
way to measure a tournament's depth of field is to check out the
bottom. At Doral 32 Q school players teed it up. "I ranked third
after the reshuffle my first year on Tour, and I didn't get in
this tournament," Glen Day said in recalling being left out in
1994. "It used to be that if you were coming out of the Q
school, you never even thought you might play Doral."
What has happened is indicative of a fundamental shift on the
PGA Tour, one result of the dominoes that are still falling
after the creation of the World Golf Championships, the three
new high-gloss events designed to bring the world's best players
together more often and make golf more global. "I don't like
what this has done to the game," says Jack Nicklaus, who is
recovering from hip replacement surgery and used a cane to walk
the Doral grounds last week so he could watch his son Gary play.
"You add a few of these world tournaments to the majors, and all
of a sudden the Tour becomes a satellite tour. That is the one
fear I have. Doral has been hurt from it. I think the match play
event is great. I like the idea of the best players in the world
playing against each other more often, but it shouldn't be at
the expense of the rest of the Tour."
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The
Match Play was scheduled as the last stop of the West Coast
swing, a week that many big names had traditionally taken off.
Players, of course, wanted to be sharp for it, which meant
competing in the weeks leading up to the $5 million event. That
added up to much stronger fields at Pebble Beach and at Riviera
in Los Angeles, but it made Doral and this week's Honda Classic
a good time to, well, take a break. The Bay Hill Invitational
follows the Honda. Then comes The Players Championship, the
fifth-major wannabe. That is followed by a stop outside Atlanta
and then the Masters. "This event [always] was the start of the
drive to Augusta," says Roger Maltbie, a Tour veteran of the
'70s and '80s who worked the '99 Doral as a roving reporter for
NBC. "And the start of warmer temperatures. Guys got rid of
their sweaters when they came here. Players will always weigh
the places they like the best, but timing on the schedule is big
now. It's become a 12-month game instead of 10 months. You've
got to look at how you're going to play your best for 12 months.
This year the drive to Augusta and The Players Championship
maybe starts at Bay Hill."
The weak field at Doral also reflects another shift. The money
has grown so big so fast that it doesn't mean as much. The World
Ranking, which determines who gets into the world events and
even into some of the majors, has suddenly become more
important. "This used to be a really big tournament, and a lot
of it had to do with the purse," Day says. "Now it's just
average. We play for so much money, we've got to be fresh all
year. If that means taking off a big tournament, whether it's
Colonial or Memorial or Bay Hill, so you can play three other
tournaments down the road, yeah, you do it. What drives your
life? Money? Family? A hunting trip? Skiing? Golf is a business."
More than ever, Tour events are now hostages to their dates. If
your event falls the week after an important tournament, don't
expect a star-studded field. "A lot of guys didn't come here
because of the Match Play, and we've got some big events coming
up," says Greg Norman, a three-time Doral winner who finished
19th last week. "Sometimes good tournaments suffer, and this is
a good tournament. This is a good golf course, and the field
will come back."
Maybe, maybe not. Some players stay away from Doral because they
don't care for the design changes that Raymond Floyd made two
years ago, even though they have been markedly softened due to
complaints. When Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who stopped at
Doral early last week, was asked about the tournament's schedule
problem, he denied there was one. He said the match play event
had no impact on Doral, then pulled a sheet out of his pocket
and read the names of some of the players in the field: Els,
Norman, John Daly, Steve Elkington, Nick Faldo, John Huston,
Justin Leonard, Nick Price and Vijay Singh, among others. "I
can't get too worried about the quality of the field," Finchem
concluded. "A lot of tournaments would kill for this field."
As it turned out, two of those marquee players, Elkington and
Els, provided plenty of star power, and Doral got a classic
black-and-Blue Monster finish induced by the dreaded 443-yard
18th, which is probably the most feared and loathed finishing
hole on the Tour. Not even Elkington, who plastered 10 birdies
on the board in a final-round run that carried him from six
shots back to victory, escaped unscathed. He three-putted for
bogey from 40 feet, cutting his lead to one over Els, Dunlap and
Greg Kraft, all of whom still had most of the back nine to play.
As a result of the mistake, Elkington may have become the first
player to kick--and dent--the scoring trailer's wall after
shooting 64. Asked later how his foot was feeling, the owner of
the Tour's best-looking swing joked, "Turn around. I'll show you."
Els, the two-time U.S. Open champion and owner of the swing you
would kill for if you couldn't get Elkington's, looked as if he
would at least force a playoff. He birdied the 17th hole to move
into a tie for the lead, then hit a perfect drive at the 18th.
He had fought off a case of the pulls the day before when he
scraped out a 70 with a final-hole birdie, and trying to hit a
hard eight-iron to the back-left pin position, he pulled another
shot left. The ball burrowed in the deep bermuda rough. "I was
thinking, Just get it on the damn green," said Els, who didn't.
His flop shot flopped, and the ball rolled down the bank toward
the lake, stopping in the rough again. The next try went 15 feet
past the hole, and Els had to settle for a double bogey. As he
stormed to the scoring trailer, he fired his ball against a
temporary fence. "I can't believe those two shots," he muttered
That left it to Kraft, who was looking for his first Tour win.
Like Els, Kraft also birdied the 17th hole to tie Elkington, and
he also hit a perfect drive at the 18th. With the biggest
opportunity of his career on the line, he chunked a five-iron
shot that splashed in the lake 30 yards short of the green. He
made a scrambling up-and-down bogey that was worth $160,000, the
difference between solo second and a six-way tie for runner-up,
but the victory belonged to Elkington, who said, "I'm the
luckiest guy going."
Last Saturday that honor had seemed to belong to Andy Bean,
who'll turn 46 this week and was a true blast from the past for
appreciative Doral galleries. He's a three-time Doral winner,
the last victory coming in 1986. Wrist and elbow injuries
interrupted his career, which has suffered in the '90s. In the
last seven years Bean hasn't finished better than 177th on the
money list. Asked about the Senior tour, Bean joked, "Man, my
headlights don't shine that far. Shoot, we have to eat now." He
has no exempt status, couldn't get a spot in any of the first
eight West Coast tournaments and got into Doral on a sponsor's
"People forget how good Andy was because he has not played well
in a long time," says Maltbie. "When he had it, he could go. He
could beat a golf course into submission, and I mean beat it
into submission. He hit the ball very high, very hard and very
solid. He was a real bull. For his strength and his length, he
was pretty accurate. If he did anything with his putter, he was
going to be a factor. It was kind of surprising he didn't win a
major when he was rolling the putter well. It seemed he had the
right stuff to do that. It's nice to see him play well again."
The power-hitting Bean won 11 times from 1977 to '86 and
finished among the top seven money winners five times. His
steep, powerful swing and the pelt-sized divots he made took a
heavy toll, though, and not surprisingly, his left wrist and
elbow wore out. Meanwhile his three daughters were growing
older, and family life became a priority. Whether Bean's
performance at Doral was a one-week fluke or the start of a
stirring comeback remains to be seen, but it was something he
"The last few days, it has really been fun out there," said
Bean, whose last top 10 finish was three years ago in Houston.
"I can't see how Nicklaus did what he did all those years. The
kids, the family. He's got five kids, and I'm sitting here
going, Man, how do you do it? I have to give him a lot of credit
because he can turn it on and off. It wasn't that easy for me.
When I wasn't playing as well in the last 10 years, it was
easier to stay home and watch my kids play volleyball or soccer
or basketball. I enjoyed being Dad. Oh, there are definitely
unwritten chapters for me in golf, but I wouldn't change the
relationship I've had with my daughters in the last eight years
for any amount of wins."
Bean pulled off two of the tournament's most scintillating shots
in Saturday's third round. First he holed a long, high-arching
bunker shot from in front of the 14th green for an improbable
birdie. "I started laughing," Bean said. "I didn't know what to
say except, Thank you, Lord." At the 18th he pushed his drive
into a fairway bunker that guards the adjacent 1st hole. He had
205 yards, an awkward lie, palm trees in front of him and a lake
left of the green. His gutsy three-iron shot landed on the green
and rolled past the pin into the back fringe. "Heck," the burly
Georgia native said, "I amazed myself at 18." The fans were so
fired up by his remarkable par that Bean had to issue a polite
but stern command before P.H. Horgan III could putt out, "Y'all
gotta be quiet!"
Sunday wasn't quite as remarkable for Bean, who shot 73,
finished 19th and won $29,000. Still, the week was good enough
to make a smile flash across the face of the man who, according
to legend, was so hot-tempered that he chewed the cover off a
golf ball during a college tournament. "I'm swinging more like I
did back in the early '80s," Bean says. "I'm having fun out
there, and it's been a long time coming."
It turns out the golf season really did start at Doral. At least
it did for one hopeful, renewed man.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Fast finish Elkington saved his best golf for the weekend, playing the last 36 holes in 11 under.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: BILL FRAKES (3) Coming up short Els was on the verge of forcing a playoff, but his flop shot at the 18th was a total flop, never reaching the green.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Blast from the past Bean, a three-time Doral champion who hasn't won since 1986, got into contention before fading on Sunday.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND So close Kraft put himself in position for his first Tour win, but his chances were drowned by a fatal five-iron at the 72nd hole.