POTOMAC -- Since moving down the road from Congressional Country Club to the Tournament Players Club at Avenel in 1987, the Kemper Open could have been called the b.c. open: bland and criticized.
A couple of big names would show up every year, but it was usually left to the Tom Byrums and Gil Morgans of the world to win it.
A year ago, eventual champion Mark Brooks seethed when he thought the media was portraying the field as "John Daly and the Other Guys."
Daly isn't here this year, and nobody seems to care. Curtis Strange withdrew Tuesday, and nobody seemed to notice.
Suddenly, the $1.4 million tournament is not just another well-paying, nondescript pit stop for the rank-and-file members of the PGA Tour.
Suddenly, Avenel is swarming with big-name players.
With a field that includes 10 of the top 25 players on the tour's 1995 money list and in the world rankings, the Kemper Open gets under way today.
The players will use it as a launching pad for next week's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
Tournament officials will use this week to build for the future.
"I think it's going to be a milestone year for the Kemper," said Greg Norman, a two-time winner at Congressional who is making his first trip back since 1992 and only his fourth appearance in the tournament's nine-year history here. "It's a good benchmark that guys can reflect on."
Said tournament chairman Ben Brundred, "I feel it's important that they don't go away with any adverse feelings about the course or the tournament."
As, say, Norman did back in 1987. Norman's first trip to Avenel was a memorable one, and nearly his last. After bogeys on the par-3 ninth hole during the last two rounds cost him a chance at victory, Norman took his own parting shot when someone asked how he would improve the hole.
"Blow it up," he said.
Asked yesterday about that remark, Norman said, "I was only critical of one or two holes. I wasn't critical of the whole facility. They've done a wonderful job of improving the golf course. Over a nine-year period, they've gotten the golf course to where it's ready to go."
And they've gotten a field that most PGA tournaments would envy.
Aside from Norman, who is playing for only the second time in seven weeks after suffering from back spasms, it includes Nick Price, the world's No. 1-ranked player, who is making his first visit to Avenel since 1987; former Masters champion Fred Couples, a no-show since 1989; also, Davis Love III, Corey Pavin and former Masters and British Open winner Seve Ballesteros of Spain, who hasn't been here since 1990.
3l It doesn't matter that Ballesteros' countryman, 1994 Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, admittedly came to Avenel for the first time "to get adjusted to the time change" for next week's Open.
Or that Couples is here mostly because he wants to test his back before teeing it up on Long Island.
Or that many won't be back next year, when the tournament will fall after a popular two-week swing in Texas and a week before the must-show Memorial.
(The Kemper Open will get a favorable spot in 1997, the week before the U.S. Open is played at Congressional.)
"You can't play every week," said Couples, who hasn't played in nearly two months because of a degenerative disc in his back. "Honestly, if we were at Congressional [where he won in 1983], I'd never skip it."
Said former U.S. Open champion Tom Kite, who won the inaugural Kemper at Avenel in 1987, "I think scheduling is the most important thing. The golf course got a bad reputation because we played it too early. But the truth is, if they get a good week in the schedule, they'll get a good field. Westchester had a bad spot this year and it had its worst field in a long time."
Where: TPC at Avenel, Potomac
When: Today through Sunday
Course: 7,005 yards, par 71
Purse: $1.4 million; $252,000 to winner
TV: Chs. 13, 9, Saturday, 4:30-6 p.m.; Sunday, 3-6 p.m.
Defending champion: Mark Brooks