Lefty Defends Tiger Over His Tournament

Thursday, March 15th 2007, 8:12 am
By: News On 6

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ Rivals on the golf course, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson sounded like allies Wednesday in promoting the concept of Woods' new tournament in Washington being treated like an invitational.

The field size for the new AT&T National has caused a great divide on the PGA Tour, the lines drawn between prestige and opportunity.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem suggested that the tournament likely would be considered an invitational, similar to events hosted by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, which have reduced fields. Some players have argued that the tour should not make the event exclusive, which would take away spots in a season already made shorter by the FedEx Cup.

``We're trying to put on the best possible field and the best tournament we possible can, and I think ultimately that's what we've decided on,'' Woods said Wednesday, his first comments since the flap became public last week in Tampa, Fla. ``Field size is still up in the air. It's not finalized yet. But we are certainly looking at a reduced field.''

Woods said Finchem had already talked informally with players on the policy board.

Left in the dark were members of the 16-man Players Advisory Council, such as Rich Beem, who said in an interview last week that the idea of a smaller field was ``insulting.''

``I think it's great that Tiger is involved and we're going to Washington. We need that,'' Beem said. ``But we're trying to get back more spots throughout the year, and all of a sudden we have a limited-field tournament? It's the most totally wrong thing I've heard of in a long time that's sticking in to the players.''

The PAC scheduled a conference call for March 28 to discuss the field size.

Mickelson said he has tried to stay out of ``tour politics'' the past few years, but quickly rose to Woods' defense. He said it was important for the tour to be in the nation's capital, and important for the tour to have a strong relationship with Woods.

``And that tournament does both,'' he said.

Mickelson has long argued against opposite-field events held the same week as World Golf Championships, saying the tour has to subsidize purses to give lower-ranked players a chance to earn money. The tour already has three conflicting events, and plans another one next year in Puerto Rico.

``All of the conflicting events cannot support themselves financially, and all of the excess revenue from the tour goes to support those tournaments, and most of that money is driven by Tiger,'' Mickelson said. ``So if you're looking at 450 spots that Tiger is creating, and if he wants to take 20 away because he wants to have a prestigious event, I think we should not, as players, be narrow-minded.''

Woods is responsible for the massive increases in prize money on tour because of his popularity, which has led to stout TV contracts. Total prize money was $80 million his first full year as a pro, and now is about $265 million.

``If we look at the big picture, he does a heck of a lot more in this tournament ... and it does an incredible amount for the tour and the game of golf,'' Mickelson said. ``I think we need to be careful on that.''

Stirring the debate is that the AT&T National replaces the International, which had a 144-man field.

While Woods and Finchem favor a reduced field in Washington, they have not proposed a number. The tour has studied making all invitationals the same size, although it could face a struggle getting Nicklaus to go along at the Memorial. His field has a minimum of 105.

``It's always a concern,'' former U.S. Amateur champion Jeff Quinney said. ``If I was a rookie and had limited starts and I hadn't made too many cuts, you want to have as many starts as you can. Luckily, I probably won't have to worry. I don't think it's significant _ maybe 20, 30 spots. It wasn't like a huge cut like Doral is next week.''

Doral for years had a 144-man field until it was folded into a WGC event and likely will have a field of just under 100.

``Obviously, there's 50 percent of the tour that thinks it's a great idea; 50 percent don't,'' Rod Pampling said.

Woods' foundation runs the tournament and will get the charity money, which he will use to build a Tiger Woods Learning Center in the Washington area. Still to be determined is a golf course _ all signs point to Congressional the first two years.

Woods favors a shorter field.

``Play moves along a lot faster,'' he said. ``You get around in a much more rhythmical pace. I think that's important.''

Woods has played Bay Hill every year and missed Memorial for the first time last year after his father died, and he has liked the way Palmer and Nicklaus run those tournaments. Both are invitationals, meaning the field is smaller.

Palmer said the benefit of a smaller field is ``it attracts interest.''

``If you're able to do a good tournament _ and we like to think that we do a good tournament _ it creates an interest among the players who want to come and win this golf tournament,'' he said. ``If we had a number that was perfect, that would be ... 120.''