POTOMAC -- Since coming to the Tournament Players Club a Avenel six years ago, the Kemper Open has been able to stir a lot more interest among the area's golf fans than among the big names on the PGA Tour.
There have been any number of reasons why many of the top players have avoided Avenel. Some didn't like that it was opened a year or two too early. Others thought it was tricked up a bit too much. Then it became too easy.
The field for this year's $1.3 million tournament, which begins today and runs through Sunday, is not studded with stars. And those big names who are here, for the most part, are either fading, aching or merely fleeting.
"It's never a nameless field on the U.S. tour," said Australian Ian Baker-Finch, a former British Open champion. "Some weeks, you have a few more names than others."
Because of a quirk in scheduling that sandwiched the Kemper between two tour stops in Texas, a tournament that has had its problems attracting the top players found itself further depleted this year.
"I think it's the dumbest thing the tour has ever done," tournament chairman Ben Brundred Jr. said. "What it cost us is a lot of guys who live in the Midwest. I wouldn't have come all the way back East either."
And because the Kemper is a month before the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, many top players took a rest before gearing up for next month. Brundred said that next year's Kemper will be two weeks before the Open at Oakmont, outside Pittsburgh, and the 1995 )) tournament will be the week before the Open at Shinnecock Hills, in Long Island, N.Y.
Not that this year's tournament is devoid of talent or, for that matter, big names. Though defending U.S. Open champion and former Kemper winner Tom Kite is the only player here in this year's top 10 money list and there are only four who are in the top 20, a number of players in the 156-man field have spent a fair amount of time in the spotlight.
Among them are former PGA champion John Daly and two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, as well as former British Open champions Baker-Finch and Mark Calcavecchia. But as one player said: "There are probably more Q-school [qualifying school] guys here than any other tournament."
Said Brundred: "It's a reasonably good field under the circumstances. I think we'll survive if we don't drown."
Of the tournament's biggest draws, Daly probably has the best chance. He has finished strong in his first two visits to Avenel -- he came in second last year, a shot behind winner Bill Glasson -- and has shown flashes this season despite spending three weeks in alcohol rehab earlier in the year.
Daly said his game could be summed up by his performance at last month's Masters, where he finished third. He's close, but not quite where he wants to be.
"At the Masters, I didn't hit the ball well for three days, but I made everything [on the putting green]," he said. "On Sunday, I hit it great, but I couldn't make anything."
After missing more than a month because of a herniated disk in his back, Kite showed signs at last week's Byron Nelson Classic that his game -- and his back -- was getting back in shape. Though he missed the cut, his second-round 69 was evidence to that. Kite is trying to get in a few tournaments before defending his Open title.
Avenel certainly brings back good memories for the 43-year-old Texan. He won the first Kemper played here in 1987, then nearly won back-to-back before losing in a playoff to Morris Hatalsky the following year. He has missed the cut in the two tournaments he has played since returning to the tour.
"I need to get back to playing," Kite said. "What you did here two years or five years or six years [ago] is nice, but what counts is what you did this week."
If the 7,005-yard course stays damp from two days of rain, it's going to favor the long hitters such as Daly. That's if tournament officials don't move the tee boxes up, as they did last year before the rain-soaked third round. If the course dries out and takes away the advantage of the master blasters, the list of contenders could be as long as this year's Kentucky Derby.
There could be a first-time winner, as happened with Billy Andrade two years ago. There could be a journeyman in a long drought, as happened with Gil Morgan in 1990. There could be a Kemper champion from its Congressional days, as happened with Glasson last year.
"There are 50 guys out here who are just as good as the 30 or so big names on the tour," said Baker-Finch, who came in second to Morgan in 1990.
Said Andrade: "It doesn't matter if it's the Kemper Open or the U.S. Open. When you stand on that first tee Thursday, you're going to be pumped."