Sunday, March 16, 2003

Greater depth on PGA Tour astounds veterans

Golf notebook: Nicklaus mulls Masters invite

The Associated Press

MIAMI - Jonathan Byrd was 1-under par through two rounds at Doral and not sure he would be around for the weekend. Two days later, he tied for fifth and cashed a check for $182,500.

"I remember looking at the board when I finished 1-under," Byrd said. "I was eight out of the lead at the time. I was thinking, 'If I can just make the cut, there's a chance. It's so packed, you just never know.' "

A record number of first-time winners on the PGA Tour last year (18) illustrated the depth and strength of fields. Another indication is how many players still have a chance to win on the weekend, even when they narrowly make the cut.

The Ford Championship at Doral was only the latest example.

Dating to the start of last season, there have been 29 tournaments where only 10 strokes separated the leaders from those who made the cut on the number. Eight guys who barely made it to the weekend wound up with top-10 finishes.

Ian Leggatt made the cut by one stroke in Tucson last year and won the tournament. Steve Elkington went from last place on Friday to a playoff in the British Open.

"I had one year where I made about five cuts on the number, and in three or four of those events I finished in the top 10," Jim Furyk said.

Major moves on the weekend are rare on the West Coast because of early starts to accommodate television, leading to two-tee starts.

Players who make the cut on the number get late tee times (starting on No. 10) and face the same conditions as the leaders.

Tiger Woods was the exception last year. He made the cut on the number at Torrey Pines, and finished in a tie for fifth, three strokes out of the lead.

"This tour has more depth than we've ever had," Billy Mayfair said. "It's my 15th year out here, and these guys have gotten better and better."

NO TIME TO PLAY: Jack Nicklaus is so excited about his health that he would like to play more tournaments, especially as he tries to decide whether to play the Masters.

But he doesn't have time.

"Six months ago, I didn't think I'd be able to play golf at all," the 63-year-old Nicklaus said. "Like an idiot, I totally booked up my schedule between now and Augusta because I had no intention to play any golf."

He played back-to-back weeks on the Champions Tour, took a week off and then played at Doral. He would have liked to play this week at the Honda Classic.

Instead, he has to travel to Phoenix to accept an award. Also on the itinerary is a trip to Las Vegas to see Celine Dion, a birthday present for his wife.

The only opening might be next week on the Champions Tour in California - although he has a commitment in Ohio on Wednesday, and another in New York on Sunday night. The only other break is the members-only Jamboree at Augusta National at the end of March, which Nicklaus doesn't want to miss.

Nicklaus might not make up his mind about the Masters until the week before.

"I'm not going up there just to be part of the field," he said. "I don't expect to win, but if I play well, I think I can finish in the top 10."

PICKING UP THE PACE: Ask just about any PGA Tour player or rules official to identify the biggest culprit in slow play, and Ben Crane's name would top every list.

Crane heard the whispers and is trying to do something about it.

"I would love for you to write that it hasn't been a problem," Crane said. "But it was a problem last year. I've worked extremely hard and gotten a lot better. The officials are seeing a change. It's just a matter of time."

Crane is one of the most polite players on tour - which might have been the problem. He said he would step to the side as his playing partners hit their shots, then go to his ball and start figuring out the yardage and which club to hit.

A couple of players told him last year he needed to pick up the pace, but what really got Crane's attention was being paired with guys slower than him.

"I was like, 'Wow. When I'm slow ... that must be terrible,"' Crane said. "I want to get this off my back. In order to be the best I can be, this shouldn't be an issue. It's a matter of getting your homework done before it's your turn to play."

DIVOTS: The Royal Bank of Scotland, trying to raise its profile in the United States, continued to build a golf team this week by announcing endorsement deals with Charles Howell III and Luke Donald. The world's fifth largest bank already has a partnership with Jack Nicklaus. All three players will appear in print and television ads in the United States and around the world. ... Annika Sorenstam has added to her collection of logos by signing a two-year deal with Kraft. She will wear the logo on the upper left collar of her shirt and the upper part of her golf bag. ... Chris Smith had a wide range of numbers on his scorecard Friday at Doral - 2-3-4-5-6-7-8, although not in that order.

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