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A crop will contend for the title

Posted: March 14, 2008 3:46 a.m.
Updated: May 15, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Tom Purtzer takes a swing in Thursday's Champions Tour's AT&T Champions Classic Pro-Am held on Thursday at the Valencia Country Club. Purtzer won the AT&T Champions Classic last year.

Things haven't changed much over the years at Valencia Country Club for the Champions Tour's AT&T Champions Classic.

Maybe pin placement from year to year.

But the influx over the past couple of years of highly-accomplished golfers from the PGA TOUR makes this year's tournament, which tees-off today at 10:20 a.m., likely the most competitive ever.

Coming off the most exciting finish ever, as Tom Purtzer outlasted Loren Roberts in the 2007 Classic in a sudden-death playoff that went to four holes, it's now anybody's tournament.

"There's a bunch of new guys out there that are hungry. We're all hungry," said Purtzer, also the 2003 champion.

"There's a stretch there, (PGA TOUR golfers age) 45 to 50, it's really tough. You're grinding against guys who could be your kids. Now all of a sudden, they've got the upper hand because they're playing guys who've been out five, 10 years and have there games going away from them."

That new crop of challengers to Champions Tour stalwarts like Purtzer, two-time AT&T champ Tom Kite and World Golf Hall of Famer Hale Irwin are regularly winning on the tour.

And if they're not, they're close.

"Those guys like Tom Kite and Hale Irwin, they've been here so long they're still right up there in the top, so it's up to us to try and stay with them," said 54-year-old Jay Haas, who is currently fourth on the Champions Tour money list.

Golfers like Haas and Roberts are part of group of heavy names to join the Champions Tour in the last couple of years.

Classic first-timers Fred Funk and Berhard Langer represent a crop of those hungry recent newcomers that are breathing down the necks of everybody.

And then there are those who are regulars in the top 10 of the Classic, but have never won.

Players like Andy Bean, Peter Jacobsen and Gary McCord are in the close-but-no-cigar party.

With so many names and so much competition, there are so many different players that could be holding the crystal trophy on Sunday.

One factor could be wind.

The breeze that turned into strong gusts Wednesday night is expected, to continue all weekend.

Bad news for some, not so for others.

Bean said it plays to his advantage.

"That's good for me. It makes the course play harder," said Bean, who finished tied for fourth in 2007. "When you have to strike the ball well and putt the ball well, I think I'm better off."

Des Smyth won in 2005 with a slight breeze, as he recalls.

"I think you've got to have a really hard shot to do well here," Smyth said. "The greens are challenging. If the wind conditions are calm, you can put the ball where you want it and avoid some of the tough parts of the course. If the wind blows like this, it's going to come down to whose got a great short game."

The short game is so crucial because of the dynamic greens at Valencia Country Club.

Haas described it as wavy in some parts with all the undulation. Many parts are traps for three-putts.

Golfers have said the ball strikers, the ones who can consistently put the ball in play and on the greens, are the ones with biggest advantage here.

Kite is a noted ball striker, as is Purtzer.

"You have to drive the ball on the fairway, so there's holes that are right to left, left to right; so you can't just be a fader. You just can't be a hooker and get away with it," Purtzer said. "You have to play both ways. You've got to have a pretty good handle on distance control shots into the green. It helps so much if you can putt the greens."

It helps to do it for three rounds, too.

Irwin led after two last year before Purtzer and Roberts stepped up.

Now they all have more to contend with.

Note: Tour money-leader Scott Hoch pulled out of the tournament Thursday due to a bad back. Mike Reid will replace him.


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