2002: Perspective - One last garden party
Pine Mountain, Ga.
This quaint, charming village deep in the Georgia pines is a place where PGA Tour players love to get away from it all. Where players and their families annually gather for informal cookouts on back porches in their Callaway Gardens cottages. Where most of the stores close by dark and where country-cookin’ eating establishments outnumber fast-food joints 8 to 1.
It’s a place where nature abounds, crickets chirp and the air is clean and crisp. Where the people are friendly, the pace is slow and the traffic – even during Buick Challenge week – is almost nonexistent.
“You sleep real well here because you’re out in the wild,” said 2001 champion Chris DiMarco.
Added 1995 champion Fred Funk: “The players like coming here. It is a nice atmosphere for us because it is a laid-back town. It’s definitely in the sticks a little bit.”
It’s a place where you can get a front-rope seat to see David Toms – one of the top 10 golfers in the world – shoot 66, then a few hours later have an even closer view of Toms as he saunters up in a pair of old jeans and a sweatshirt to order a barbecue plate at the Three Lil’ Pigs.
It’s a place where members of the gallery, polite and knowledgeable as they are, often find themselves outnumbered by squirrels, foxes and hawks – despite one of the best fields of any fall Tour event. It’s where players can unwind after the pressures of a long season, a spot where birdies and bogeys don’t seem quite so important and where missing a cut doesn’t seem quite so cruel. And how many Tour events can you name where fans had to walk through Mr. Cason’s Vegetable Garden to get to the golf course?
“We don’t mind being a laid-back tournament,” said Dick Ellis, director of the event that took its final bow Oct. 27. “You need to lay back every now and then.”
Unfortunately, this tiny town in the foothills of the Appalachians also is the kind of place you’ll never again see on the PGA Tour. With today’s combination of a shaky economy, continually growing purses and corporate sponsors wielding an ever-bigger stick, quaint and charming just don’t cut it anymore.
As Davis Love III, one of the event’s biggest boosters, sadly pointed out, “All the reasons why this tournament is so great are the reasons why it doesn’t work.”
Love, who won here in 1997, knows better than anyone. After Buick informed tournament officials last year that it was dropping sponsorship of the event after 2002, Love made some calls in an effort to help secure a new title sponsor. But with a purse that has more than doubled to $3.7 million in the last three years, no one was willing to step up. In a place with such a small population base, the numbers no longer added up.
“I hate to see the tournament go,” said Love, a longtime Georgia resident known in these parts for the barbecue bash he threw each year at his Callaway cottage. “But I’ll be back. . . . Next time, there’ll just be more time for hunting and fishing.”
It didn’t help, of course, that Buick pitchman Tiger Woods never hit a shot that counted at Callaway Gardens. He has appeared in each of Buick’s other three events on tour, but the closest he came here was in 1996, his first year as a pro, when he received a sponsor exemption as winner of the Fred Haskins Award, then presented annually at this event to the top college player from the previous season. Woods played a practice round, but then pulled out and left town before the Haskins dinner. He hasn’t been back to the tournament since, unless you count the virtual-reality image of the star that fans had their picture taken with at a Buick display last week.
Ellis was diplomatic when discussing Woods’ absence, saying that there was never any promises from Buick that the star would attend and that he understood the reasons for Woods’ withdrawal in ’96 (Woods had played four events in a row and said he needed a break). But the wish was that, six years later, the world’s No. 1 player would have at least helped give the event a grand farewell.
Still, Ellis said he always will take pride in the fact that, “we had a great tournament and we had a great run.”
He said several players told him they liked the down-home flavor of the event so much, they’d even be willing to accept a smaller purse for it to continue. But for a Tour that is speeding down a one-way road of big prize money, big-city venues and big corporate sponsors, there can be no turning back to small-town traffic and slower speed limits.
Or, to put it another way, players can’t have their Pine Mountain barbecue and eat it, too.