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Inside the Ropes: Vegas tournament looks to attract more big names

The SportsXchange

The Las Vegas stop on the PGA Tour once was one of the most popular among the players, but it has been something of an afterthought now that it is part of what is called the Fall Series.

That won't change this week when Kevin Na defends his title at TPC Summerlin, but next year the 2014 PGA Tour season will begin in the fall, with the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open becoming part of the FedEx Cup race.

That doesn't necessarily mean Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and the rest of the best players in the world will be signing on immediately, but it increases the chances some of them might come.

"I don't know if I'm allowed to drop names," Na, a Vegas resident, told reporters at the tournament's media day. "If I drop names and they don't show up, it's going to look bad. But I did hear some guys who live on the West Coast talk about it.

"I'm really happy to see the tournament moved into a full FedEx Cup points tournament. Now that it's at the beginning of the year, I think it will create a little more buzz for the guys wanting to get off to a good start.

"This is Las Vegas. We have to have a Tour event here and we have to have a big, great Tour event, and I think this is on its way to being one of the best tournaments on the Tour."

The champions' names etched on the tournament trophy include Greg Norman, Curtis Strange, John Cook, Paul Azinger, Davis Love III, Fuzzy Zoeller, Jim Furyk and Woods, who claimed his first professional title at Las Vegas in 1996, giving him his PGA Tour card without going to Q-school.

However, he hasn't been back since defending his title in 1997 with a tie for 36th, although he comes to Las Vegas every year for his "Tiger Jam" charity concert.

Mickelson, who reportedly is a frequent visitor to Vegas on holiday, has played in the tournament 12 times but not since 2005. His best finish in the event was second, one stroke behind Billy Andrade in 2000.

"I imagine a lot of players on tour will step back a little bit and look at their schedules now," tournament director Adam Sperling said. "The schedule used to be, 'When and where do I want to play from January through September?'

"Being at the front end of the schedule, guys (might) prefer to play in Vegas in October as opposed to some other locales during different times of the year when the weather may be a little less predictable.

"So I think we can see guys kind of come and go and reshape their schedules."

Another advantage the tournament might have is that it is expected to be second at the start of the new season. The Frys.com Open in San Martin, Calif., which will be played next week, will take the leadoff spot, according to early reports.

That will give players who have recently finished the PGA Tour playoffs and/or the Ryder or Presidents Cup a much needed week off before heading to Las Vegas.

Much like the tournaments in Hawaii and at Hilton Head and Walt Disney World, the tournament in Vegas is considered a working vacation by many players. Now they will be able to make for more money, and not only in the casinos.

Shriners Hospitals for Children announced earlier this year a five-year extension of its title-sponsorship extension, carrying the commitment through 2017.

That will include an increase of $1.5 million in the tournament purse to $6 million next year, and the amount will be increased each year of the new contract.

For now Sperling is trying to stay in the present as Na prepares to defend his title against the likes of Las Vegas resident Nick Watney and Charley Hoffman, Justin Leonard, Chris DiMarco, Stewart Cink, John Daly, Rory Sabbatini and Angel Cabrera.

"While we're spending a lot of time on our future and looking at the future, it's impossible to take your eye off of the ball," he said. "Without a successful tournament this year, next year is going to be much more of a challenge. We're just trying to keep the momentum going.

"I think this is the light that we were all kind of reaching for. To be able to attain it is a great success for everybody involved and the city of Las Vegas."

The PGA Tour made the move, at least in part, to appease the sponsors of the Fall Series events rather than risk losing them.

The moral of the story is that money talks, especially in Vegas.

COMING UP

PGA TOUR: Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospital for Children Open at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday through Sunday.

TV: Thursday through Sunday, 4-7 p.m. EDT on the Golf Channel each day.

Last year: Kevin Na holed a 42-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole in the final round to clinch his first PGA Tour title by two strokes over Nick Watney in a head-to-head battle of Las Vegas residents. The 28-year-old Na was tied with Watney after 54 holes and closed with a 6-under-par 65 to set a tournament record of 23-under 261. Watney, who was seeking his third victory of the season on the PGA Tour, shot 67 and had to settle for his 10th top-10 finish of the year. Na's maiden victory came in his 211th event on the PGA Tour after he had finished second three times. He couldn't pull away from Watney on Sunday with five birdies on the front nine and didn't take the lead for good until he chipped to within three free of the hole to set up a birdie at No. 15.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, N.C., Friday through Sunday.

TV: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 1-4 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Playing with a heavy heart, Kenny Perry holed a 30-foot eagle putt on the 17th hole in the final round and claimed his first Champions Tour victory, by two strokes over Jeff Sluman and John Huston. The 51-year-old Perry, who won 14 times on the PGA Tour, nearly withdrew the night before the final round because of the death of his sister, Kay Perry, after a long battle with cancer. Kay died two years to the day after their mother, Mildred, also succumbed to cancer. Perry rebounded from a double-bogey 7 on the 12th hole, where he hit his approach shot into the water, to win with a closing 2-under-par 70.

LPGA TOUR: Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia at Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Oct. 11-14.

TV: Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 9:30-11:30 p.m. EDT, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Na Yeon Choi of South Korea posted four rounds of 3-under-par 68 or better and held off top-ranked Yani Tseng of Taiwan by one stroke. Tseng, who started the day four strokes behind Choi, closed with a 7-under-par 65 in a bid for her seventh LPGA Tour victory of the year. She pulled even with birdies on the 15th and 16th holes. However, Choi holed a five-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to regain the lead and claimed her fifth LPGA Tour title, but the first in 2011, closing with a 68. It was the 100th victory on the LPGA Tour for players of South Korean descent. Tseng, who a week earlier beat Choi by one shot in the LPGA Hana Bank Championship, missed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that would have forced a playoff.
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