Gorillas club Tucson field, but event won't die

By Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. - Tucson had a tasty PGA Tour legacy that went sour six years ago.

Oh, but the Tucson Open was happening back in the '70s. Johnny Miller won the tournament three times and earned his the nickname, "The Desert Fox." Dean Martin and Joe Garagiola lent their names to the event, which propelled Old Pueblo into the national spotlight on network television.

But it appears Tucson's 15 minutes (actually 26 years) of golf fame are up thanks to a couple of 400-pound gorillas. For five of the last six years, the World Golf Championships' Accenture Match Play Championship has taken place in the same weekend as the annual PGA Tour event now called the Chrysler Classic of Tucson. The one year the WGC event didn't steal the limelight, the Mercedes Championship did. They gobbled up the best players in the world while Tucson became the home of the mediocre tour player championship.

The new legacy continued with Sunday's winner, Heath Slocum, who finished 80th on the money list last year. He became the 13th first-time winner in the 58-year history of the event, the fourth in the last six years. Since the WGC's match play event started in 1999, Jim Carter, Garrett Willis and Ian Leggatt all won their first tournament in Tucson, but they haven't won since.

Their names look odd next to past champions Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. They even look out of place next to current stars Phil Mickelson and Lee Janzen, who also earned their first victories in Tucson. Champions of that caliber appear to be in the rear view mirror.

If Dean Martin were alive, he might characterize the situation by saying, "Ain't that a kick in the head." But the tournament has avoided complete decapitation. It continues to press on and achieve its goal of raising money for youth sports charities of Tucson. According to Tournament Chairman David Lane, nationally televising the event came with headaches that no longer impede its charitable purpose.

"It's tough to move all of that television inventory," Lane said. "Without a national television contract ... we've been able to increase the money we give to the sports charities, which is our No. 1 goal. Last year, we gave over $1 million.

"At first, we were disappointed [that the WGC match play event was scheduled at the same time]," he said. "But we've had great support from our title sponsor and from our community."

The support Lane referred to is quantified by the attendance numbers. The tournament drew 141,500 fans this year. Those numbers represent roughly 30 percent of the population in Tucson. When compared with the FBR Open in Phoenix, the most attended golf event in the world which pulls in 38 percent of its population, the Tucson numbers aren't that bad for a second-tier tournament.

This year, the field included a surging John Daly, who has fared well on the West Coast Swing. Lane expected Daly's aura to help the attendance numbers climb over 150,000, but the rain delay on Saturday and Daly's ensuing round of 76 might have kept the numbers slightly lower.

While the Chrysler Classic of Tucson is no longer a favorite event for the best PGA Tour players, struggling veterans like Daly and young guns like Slocum circle this date on their calendar.

"They know there are 10 to 12 guys they won't have to compete with," Lane said.

Its recent champions might be a bunch of no-names, but golf fans in Tucson don't seem to care. And since the charities benefit from the tournament's newfound obscurity, does it matter if it isn't on national television? Not until the title sponsor decides to care. Since Chrysler has signed on for that role through 2006, the Old Pueblo will have its PGA Tour event for at least two more years even if no one outside of Tucson hears or cares about it.

Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

Brendan McEvoy spent five years with Times Community Newspapers, a Reston, Va.-based chain of 18 weekly newspapers covering the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

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