POTOMAC -- The hissing noise wasn't audible coming out of Ben Brundred's office Monday afternoon at the TPC at Avenel, but the general chairman of the Kemper Open has spent the past two days trying to put some life back into the $2 million tournament that begins today without Tiger Woods.
Because of a back injury, Woods was forced to withdraw, leaving a long star-crossed event without its main attraction. Asked yesterday what it was like to take that fateful telephone call from Woods, Brundred said: "It was total deflation. The two greatest names in sports are Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, and you miss them if they're not there."
Among the PGA Tour's stable of twentysomething stars, only defending Kemper Open champion and reigning British Open champion Justin Leonard is here. But the field of 156 players who will tee off this morning includes 14 former major championship winners, including reigning Masters champion Mark O'Meara, John Daly, Tom Lehman and Lee Janzen, as well as six of the top 20 in the world rankings.
"Everywhere we go, people complain that the field's not good," said O'Meara, still a little jet-lagged from finishing third at a tournament in Germany last week. "We have a good field. Greg [Norman] is not here because of his shoulder. I understand Tiger Woods is not here because he's hurt. But I'm here. Tom Lehman's here. Justin Leonard's here. Tom Kite's here."
Leonard, who came from five shots back to beat a fading Mark Wiebe by a stroke at last year's Kemper Open, said he can understand why much of the pre-tournament hoopla went away when it was announced that Woods had pulled out. But there is no reason to believe some of it couldn't return this weekend if a player such as Daly is in the hunt.
"I think it's awful for the tournament and for the fans," said Leonard, who is ranked third in tour earnings with $1,152,209, two spots ahead of Woods. "There's 155 players I'm going to have to play against. They're not all Tiger Woods -- thank God -- but there are a lot of guys who can win the tournament."
To do so, somebody will have to overcome a 7,005-yard, par-71 course that has gained in stature in the 12 years since the tournament moved from nearby Congressional Country Club. Since Billy Andrade beat Jeff Sluman in 1991 after both finished at 21-under par, the course has been consistently toughened with higher rough and deeper bunkers.
What kind of course they will find depends this year largely on the weather. The forecast for winds up to 20 mph the next two days could make some shots a little tricky, and rain for Saturday's third round could make the course play even longer. "It's the kind of course that keeps you off-balanced," said Lehman, the 1996 British Open champion.
What kind of atmosphere they will find remains to be seen. There was a noticeable difference in atmosphere at Avenel yesterday from what had been expected with the anticipation of Woods' arrival. It seemed like so many other Kemper Opens in the past, the calm before the calm.
As for the effect Woods' absence will have on the tournament itself, Brundred said: "No question, it's going to cost us for the weekend sales."
Call it taking the wind out of the sales.
NOTES: Robert Gamez became the fourth player to withdraw from the tournament after sustaining injuries in a single-car accident Tuesday night near the golf course. Gamez, 29, suffered a bruised liver and spleen and was taken to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, where he was listed in stable condition last night. Gamez said that he expected to be in the hospital until Saturday. He said he lost control of the courtesy car he was driving on an unexpected turn in the road. "I feel fine, just a little sore," he said last night. "I'm just disappointed I can't play in the tournament."
Course: TPC at Avenel (7,005 yards, par 71) Purse: $2 million Winner's share: $360,000 TV: CBS (Saturday, 4-6 p.m., Sunday, 3: 30-6 p.m.) Last year: Justin Leonard closed with a 4-under 67 for a one-stroke victory over Mark Wiebe. The British Open winner had a 10-under 274 total. Last week: Fred Couples won the Memorial at Dublin, Ohio, finishing with a 17-under 271 total for a four-stroke victory over Andrew Magee. Couples, also the Bob Hope Classic winner, tops the money list with $1,477,017.
Pub Date: 6/04/98