Classic not short on champs

The Baltimore Sun

Anticipation and awkwardness accompany the Champions Tour on its annual stop in the Baltimore area.

Loren Roberts, the top player among golf's 50-and-over set, will miss the $1.7 million Constellation Energy Classic. Native Marylander Fred Funk has kept his focus on the PGA Tour, and Sunday's third and final round is up against the Ravens' home opener. Hayfields Country Club has matured as a host, just in time for the event to move on.

When the Champions Tour returns to the area in October 2007, it will be at a more prestigious location and format as the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship. One of five majors on the Champions Tour, the event will take up residence at the Baltimore Country Club.

Amid those coming changes, organizers of the final CEC, which opens tomorrow morning, are determined to maintain a quality product.

"The people at Hayfields have been exceptional hosts," said David H. Nevins, the chief marketing officer for Constellation Energy. "We made a promise, that in the last year of the CEC, it was going to be anything but a lame-duck event."

To that end, Constellation Energy secured the services of Arnold Palmer. One of golf's legendary figures will compete in stroke play for the first time in 11 months.

The field includes 14 of the tour's top 16 money-winners, headed by three-time winner Jay Haas. Tom Watson, Curtis Strange, Larry Nelson and Hale Irwin are among those entered who won multiple PGA Tour majors, and 1992 U.S. Open champ Tom Kite said fans don't know what they're missing.

"I hope it's a good move," Kite said of Constellation Energy's plans. "To some extent, we've had a little trouble getting the community captivated with the tournament. We had tremendous crowds when the Senior Open was at Caves Valley [in 2002], but we haven't done as well out here. Your guess is as good as mine."

Peter Jacobsen Productions, which has run the CEC since 2003, does not announce a turnstile count on attendance, but Nevins said Palmer's involvement has doubled ticket sales from last year.

The 79-player field ranges in age from Palmer, 77, to Chip Beck, who turned 50 Tuesday. The last of Beck's four wins on the PGA Tour came in 1992, and he has been biding his time with younger, bigger hitters on the Nationwide Tour.

"The Champions Tour is where golf is played the way it should be played," Beck said. "When you hit the ball in the fairway, you have a better chance of making birdie. Isn't that the way it should be?"

On the Champions Tour, no one has done that better this year than Roberts, its only four-time winner. He's readying for next week's Ryder Cup, where he'll assist U.S. captain Tom Lehman, but nearly every other prominent player on the Champions Tour is here.

Kite is on a roll, with six straight top-10 finishes and a win in Seattle last month. Scott Simpson, who turned 50 during last year's CEC, is coming off his first Champions Tour win, at Pebble Beach.

Haas won the first of the year's five majors, the Senior PGA, and trails only Roberts on the money list and in the Charles Schwab Cup standings. Allen Doyle won the U.S. Senior Open, Eduardo Romero took the JELD-WEN Tradition and Bobby Wadkins ruled at the Ford Senior Players Championship in July.

That event, held outside Detroit, is the one that Constellation Energy will move to the Five Farms course at Baltimore Country Club. If anyone should have a sentimental attachment to an old venue, it would figure to be Wadkins, but he's all for change.

"I was born and raised in Richmond, and that's a whole lot closer to Baltimore than Detroit," Wadkins said. "With Constellation Energy remaining involved, it's a good move for the Senior Players. They do a good job here [at Hayfields], but hopefully, we'll draw more next year."

Baltimore Country Club hosted a U.S. Open in the 19th century. Hayfields opened in 1998, the year the Champions Tour began its current area run. Hayfields began hosting the tour in 2001, and its members are in for a bittersweet weekend.

"It's satisfying to see the CEC grow into something bigger, but it's quite a curve to throw into the middle of a season, and we'll be very happy to get back to business as usual," said Matt Aversa, the Hayfields general manager. "It's a swan song, but we want to go out with a bang."

Constellation Energy Classic

When: Tomorrow through Sunday

Where: Hayfields Country Club, Hunt Valley

TV: The Golf Channel, 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. each day

Purse: $1.7 million, with $255,000 to winner

Defending champion: Bob Gilder

Tickets: $15 a day

Directions: From I-695: Merge onto I-83 North via Exit 24 toward Timonium/York, Pa. Take Exit 20B (Shawan Road East) and follow signs to the parking areas.

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