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Lack of star power doesn't dim Booz Allen Classic

POTOMAC — POTOMAC - Lee Janzen noticed the difference between last week's U.S. Open and the Booz Allen Classic the moment he stepped onto the grounds of the Tournament Players Club at Avenel earlier this week.

"There's not 40,000 people here on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday," Janzen, a two-time Open champion, said yesterday as he walked unimpeded from the practice range to the first tee for the pro-am. "And there may not be Thursday or Friday."

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The size of the crowd will not be the only contrast. The width of the fairways, the speed of the greens, the number of birdies and eagles (as opposed to bogeys and double bogeys) and the looks on the faces of the 156 players in the field will also be altered.

"The atmosphere is a lot more laid-back. It's much more relaxed," said Rich Beem, who missed the cut in last week's Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. "It's not a vacation by any means, but it's much less intense than last week."

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Though the name of the $4.8 million tournament, which begins today, has changed twice in the past two years, the former Kemper Open is much like many of its recent predecessors in one regard - a lack of star power.

Given its position on the PGA Tour schedule, it shouldn't be a surprise that there are only three players in the field this week ranked in the top 30, and eight in the top 50. That makes it the weakest field on the tour this year, something local favorite Fred Funk has heard before for what he thinks of as one of his unofficial majors.

"That's the one thing that upsets me that we see every year ... is when the media prints who is not at the tournament because some of the marquee guys are not there," said Funk, the former Maryland coach now ranked 47th in the world.

"But the talent definitely does not drop that much. It's incredible how much talent is at the bottom - the whole field can win the golf tournament or any golf tournament. I think there are a lot of story lines that the real golf enthusiast would really like to know."

While Wolfgang Puck might be the biggest name here - the renowned Austrian-born, California chef's company is doing much of the catering - there are still plenty of golfers the average fan can recognize.

There are eight former major winners who have combined to win 10 major championships, including multiple major winners such as Janzen and former PGA and British Open champion John Daly. Two former major champions, Beem and Justin Leonard, have also won at Avenel.

But if history repeats itself, this year's Booz Allen champion will likely be a player who hasn't won a PGA Tour event or hasn't won in a while. There have been a dozen first-time winners in this event, most recently Frank Lickliter in 2001. Last year's champion, Rory Sabbatini, hadn't won in nearly three years.

"It's clearly obvious that it's a great opportunity to make a name for yourself," said Beem, who did just that in leading (or sharing the lead) after each round before winning his first event here in 1999.

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"The golf course lends itself to a rookie who's out there winning or a guy who's been close before to winning to get over that hump because of generous fairways and big greens. If you're nervous coming down the stretch, you still have room to make a few mistakes if it comes to that."

Things have changed dramatically for Bill Haas in the past week. A week ago at Shinnecock, he was finishing his amateur career by making the cut for the first time in a professional event. Today, he will begin to follow in the footsteps of his well-respected father, Jay, as a PGA Tour player.

"This is the first chance I've had to play the week after the Open, and hopefully it won't be the last," said the younger Haas, 22, who is playing here on a sponsor's exemption. "I've only got seven tries [in regular PGA Tour events] to make as much as I can, so there's no point in laying off this week. I've got to play well."

Steve Stricker would like things to be different this week than they have been in the past two years, when he has seen his game go steadily downhill.

Eight years ago, Stricker won for the first time in his career at the Kemper Open, won a couple of months later at the Western Open and finished fourth on the money list. He was a respectable 30th in 2001, when he won the Match Play Championship. By last year, he was down to 189th, with only one top 25 finish.

Stricker doesn't mind that the tour's big names aren't here this week.

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"Obviously, when you get the likes of Ernie [Els] and Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson], you get those guys in there and there is a different feel as a player," Stricker said. "You know it's a little bigger event if they're there. There's a little bit more buzz. When you look at a tournament like this, you do look at it as an opportunity to try to play well and win."

With or without 40,000 fans cheering you on.

Booz Allen Classic

When: Today-Sunday

Where: TPC at Avenel, Potomac

Course: 7,005 yards, par 71

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Purse: $4.8 million, with $864,000 to winner

2003 winner: Rory Sabbatini

Schedule: Today-tomorrow first tee time is 7:15 a.m., with gates opening at 7. Saturday-Sunday first tee time is 8:30 a.m., with gates opening at 8.

TV: USA Network, Today-tomorrow, 4-6 p.m.; Ch. 2, Saturday-Sunday, 3-6 p.m.

Directions from Baltimore: Take I-95 South to I-495 West toward Silver Spring. Follow to I-270 North (Exit 35). Follow I-270 to Route 189 (Falls Road, Exit 5). Turn left at the signal and follow Route 189 south for about 5 1/2 miles. Turn left onto Oaklyn Drive. Follow Oaklyn Drive to the parking lots. Parking is free.

Tickets: Single-day tickets are $35. Weeklong badges are $125. Call the tournament office at 301-469-3737 or Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT. Tickets also can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com or at www.waggleproshop.com


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