Stenson Looks to Get the Call at ATT


AT&T ClassicDULUTH, Ga. -- The PGA TOUR puts up a board at each event listing the top 15 in the FedExCup standings.
Most of those players are somewhere else this week. Maybe they're spending time with their kids. Or getting in some extra practice. Or just resting up in front of the television.
Whatever the case, their absence has given the AT&T Classic a decidedly minor-league look.
Only four of the top 15 in the FedExCup race -- a format that was supposed to lure more top players into entering these second-tier events -- are on hand for the Atlanta-area event.
Looking a bit deeper through the field, just 10 of the top 50 in the world rankings will be teeing off Thursday at the TPC Sugarloaf. Tiger Woods had better things to do. So did defending champion Phil Mickelson, who blew away the field a year ago.
Sweden's Henrik Stenson (No. 7), who could probably blend into the gallery without getting recognized, is the only representative from the world's top 10.
'Everybody has different schedules, and sometimes you've got to take a tournament off,' Stenson said Wednesday. 'I guess with this one being a bit later in a long stretch of events, it's just natural that a few of the guys would take a week off.
'But,' he added with a slight grin, 'we're still here.'
The AT&T Classic has long been plagued by poor timing.
Eight years ago, the tournament willingly shifted to the slot right before the Masters in hopes of landing a large international field, benefiting from the buzz leading up to the first major of the year and providing a last hope of qualifying for nearby Augusta National.
But Masters officials changed their format, eliminating the automatic berth for all PGA TOUR winners from the previous year. So much for that selling point. And the weather was often miserable in the late March-early April spot. Heck, it even snowed one year.
Of course, the most damaging blow was the absence of Woods, who never plays the week before a major. The Atlanta tournament soon found itself longing for its former May date, hoping that would bring back the world's most prominent player.
'Every tournament where he plays is obviously a little bit special,' Stenson said.
When the PGA TOUR revamped its schedule for the new FedExCup format, the AT&T Classic shifted back to May. But -- and here's that old timing issue again -- it was placed right after the Byron Nelson, Wachovia and PLAYERS championships.
The Byron Nelson usually attracts a strong field, the Wachovia has quickly become one of the most popular stops on the tour and THE PLAYERS is generally regarded as the closest thing to a major. Woods, who doesn't like to play three weeks in a row, put the Wachovia and PLAYERS on his schedule. Others played all three, then decided this would be a good week to take off, too.
That list includes Mickelson, the two-time defending champion. He won last year by 13 strokes and set a tournament record with his 28-under total, but decided against going for a three-peat.
Stewart Cink is playing this week, but that's to be expected -- he has a home at Sugarloaf.
'Obviously, coming after such great events like Wachovia and PLAYERS, it's tough to attract the top players because everybody is looking for a little breather after those two,' Cink said. 'They're grueling events, and I wouldn't blame the guys for taking off. It's just unfortunate that we have to be right after those two tournaments.'
He believes the May date will eventually work in the tournament's favor. The weather will certainly be better, though an afternoon storm did cut into Wednesday's pro-am. Also, the course will be in much better shape than it was coming out of the chilly winter months.
'The word will get out about nice it is here,' Cink said. 'I think the top players will start to return. But it's a slow process. I don't blame anyone for not playing. But I really almost personally wish that everybody would play, to see how nice it can be here.'
He's counting on the absentees to at least be watching on television. Maybe, just maybe, they'll be eager to return in 2008.
'It'll look great on TV,' Cink said. 'There's leaves on the trees. There haven't been (leaves) for years now. The place just looks so much better now.'
At least this tournament has the only major winner of the season, Masters champion Zach Johnson. He decided to play even though he preferred using Sugarloaf as a tuneup for Augusta.
'In that respect, I think it kind of stinks,' he said. 'But that's also being very selfish because I think that course, Atlanta in general, the fans, certainly the tournament, the volunteers, have a well-deserved better date.'
Over the long haul, that should be a plus.
'We're out from underneath the Masters' shadow,' Cink said. 'Maybe now this tournament can blossom on its own.'
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