POTOMAC -- Finding room on their schedules for the Kemper Open often has been a troublesome task for the biggest names on the PGA Tour, especially since the now-$1.3 million event moved to Avenel seven years ago.
Whether it was coming to the Tournament Players Club course a year before it was ready -- when it could have been called The Unkempt Open -- or being squeezed in between more prestigious tournaments on the calendar, the Kemper Open seemed to lack star appeal.
Until this year.
Even though the course is still a bit spotty after being ravaged by ice storms last winter, and that a date two weeks before the U.S. Open is still no bargain, the Kemper Open has perhaps its strongest field since leaving nearby Congressional.
The news that defending champion Grant Waite of New Zealand had withdrawn yesterday after his wife, Lea, went into labor and was expected to deliver their first child last night went barely noticed, mainly because there are some much bigger names and more intriguing stories going into today's opening round.
Among the most interesting:
* Will John Daly show up, or blow up? Daly was disqualified here last year after failing to sign his first-round scorecard (a 6-over 77). Despite last year's incident, Daly's second-place finish two years ago and his recent victory in Atlanta could make him the player to beat.
* Will Tom Kite, winless so far in 1994, keep his string going with victories in each of the past six years? Kite, the PGA Tour's all-time earnings leader at nearly $9 million, won the inaugural Kemper at Avenel and has finished second twice, including to Waite last year.
* Will left-hander Phil Mickelson continue to show why he could be the game's next dominant player? Mickelson, who will turn 24 in two weeks, won for the fourth time in his short career at this year's first event, the Tournament of Champions, then broke his left leg and suffered a hairline fracture of his right ankle in a skiing accident and was out until last week at Colonial. He finished eighth after shooting an opening-round 66.
"I didn't feel being out three months would have that big an effect," said Mickelson, who still has an 18-inch rod in his left leg. "I'm more a feel player than a mechanical player. It's easier to pick up feel than mechanics."
* Will the tour's two players with local ties, Fred Funk and Donnie Hammond, finally have a happy homecoming? Funk, a former University of Maryland golf coach, has missed the cut twice, been disqualified once and has finished no better than a tie for 27th in eight tries. Hammond, who grew up in Frederick, has made the cut 10 times in 11 years, but has averaged a shade under 33rd place.
* Will this year's tournament produce its first big-name winner since Kite, or will it continue a tradition of middle-of-the-tour players like Gil Morgan or relative unknowns like Waite? There have been no repeat winners on tour this year, a record stretch of 21 straight weeks.
With eight of the top 30 players in the field, as well five of the last six U.S. Open champions, the chances are good that this year's Kemper Open champion won't need to be introduced. After seven years, it appears, a once-maligned tournament has come of age.
"Even though I played well, everyone agrees that we came here a year too soon," said Kite. "Then a couple of the top players criticized it. The golf course had to get a better reputation. It takes awhile for the players to come back and say, 'Hey, this place isn't nearly as bad as I remember.' "
When: Today through Sunday
Where: Tournament Players Club at Avenel, Potomac
Purse: $1.3 million, first prize of $234,000
Who: 156 golfers, including defending champion Grant Waite, reigning U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, 1992 U.S. Open winner and former Kemper champion Tom Kite, 1991 U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart and two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange as well as former PGA champion John Daly, Phil Mickelson and Fred Funk.
Tickets: $22 for grounds only through Sunday, $33 grounds and Pavilion Club. Purchased at the gate.
TV: Today and tomorrow, USA Cable, 4-6 p.m.; Saturday, 4-6 p.m.; and Sunday, 3:30-6 p.m., Channels 11, 9.