Back to golf, but thoughts remain elsewhere

Thursday, September 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LIGONIER, Pa. (AP) _ It looked like a regular week on the PGA Tour until Stewart Cink approached the fourth green at Laurel Valley Golf Club during his pro-am round for the Pennsylvania Classic.

The pins all had American flags.

``I didn't even notice it the first three holes,'' Cink said Wednesday.

The PGA Tour resumes this week, but it was clear some of the players were still in a daze over the terrorist attacks that wiped out last week's tournaments, postponed the Ryder Cup for a year and made golf look like the game it is _ hitting a little white ball.

Even on the practice range, as Cink watched Sharon Funk paint an American flag on her husband's black leather golf bag, his thoughts were elsewhere.

Laurel Valley is about 15 miles away from where a hijacked airliner plowed into a field after the passengers tried to take back control of the plane.

``My heart is telling me I should go to the crash site,'' Cink said. ``I feel very strongly about what happened last week. We all do. I want to go pay my respects, say a prayer and say goodbye. Those people were heroes.''

Some players canceled their flights and drove to western Pennsylvania, still uneasy about flying. The chatter on the practice range was muted.

Indeed, there were reminders everywhere _ the American flags attached to the pins, lapel pins of the Stars & Stripes stuck in hats or shirt collars.

``It's a tough week,'' said Arnold Palmer, a founder of Laurel Valley who longed for the day when the PGA Tour would come to his backyard, but never imagined it would be under such solemn circumstances.

``We'll survive,'' he said. ``The American people have known disaster. Our history tells you that we will come back. We need to get on with our activities. The only concern I might have is that we don't forget what has happened.''

That will be hard to do this week.

The Pennsylvania Classic began Thursday under dreary, overcast skies that made it difficult to see where the ball landed. There was no one in the gallery when Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange teed off, not one clap when he holed a 20-foot birdie putt on his second hole.

Before long, rain pelted Laurel Valley and play was suspended.

It was supposed to be halted at noon _ just like at every PGA Tour sanctioned event _ for five minutes of reflection. Officials were reviewing plans for a brief ceremony on the 18th green, in which audio equipment would allow players to listen wherever they were on the course.

``We want to get moving again, but it's not all business as usual,'' PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. ``It's different, and what's happened to our country is different than anything that's ever happened. We want to focus on any little way that our sport can pay its respects and show support.''

The field for the Marconi Pennsylvania Classic is proof this isn't a normal week.

The tour allowed for two extra spots in what is now a 158-man field. The additions are Palmer, the man responsible for bringing the PGA Tour to the Pittsburgh area, and Strange.

Five Ryder Cup players were late entries. They weren't planning to play until next week's matches in England were postponed for one year because of the terrorist attacks.

``Guys are professionals. They'll get back to work and they'll play,'' Strange said. ``That's what the president has told all of America, is that we should carry on. I just thought by coming up here, and by a couple of other Ryder Cup players playing, it shows that we are moving on.''

Finchem said security on the PGA Tour, one of the few sports where the gallery has easy access to the athletes, has been increasing the past five years. New measures will include more security staff, a ban on backpacks and a search of smaller bags, such as purses.

The defending champion is Chris DiMarco, only he won the Pennsylvania Classic last year across the state at Waynesboro Country Club near Philadelphia. This is the only regular PGA Tour event that alternates cities.

``I don't think anyone can dismiss thoughts of last week,'' DiMarco said. ``I can forget about it for five hours while I play golf, and then it's still right there when I'm done. So, I'm just going to go out and try to focus and play golf.''