Every February the chairman of the Kemper Open sends out 30 or 40 presents to selected golf pros. "Little reminder gifts," Ben Brundred calls them, "to the players we most hope will be here."

This year, almost nobody answered.

Maybe Greg and Payne, 'Zinger and Calc, Freddie and Jodie, Gentle Ben and Little Lanny just didn't need new leather travel wallets this year. Maybe the Kemper should switch back to those razors -- the ones with the Waterford crystal handles -- that were a hit gift a couple of years ago.

To date, nobody has returned any of the travel wallets to the TPC at Avenel. Instead, they've just sent their regrets.

Seve Ballesteros, who may carry this tournament on his back, has won as many major championships (five) as all the other players in the field combined.

Of the top 12 players on the money list, none is entered in the Kemper. In the past, the Kemper usually got five or six. Of the top 45 players in the world rankings, six are here. In the past, the Kemper averaged 15 to 20.

The bottom of this field is as weak as the top. This is the week they should take the Qualifying School class picture. Of the 59 players who got their card last December, 55 are signed up here. Of course, Robert Gamez, the Q school glamour boy, isn't here.

At the moment, the Kemper field still has an asterisk at the bottom -- one that says, "More players to be named."

As soon as they can find some. Call the starter. Maybe you can get a tee time.

Basically, the Kemper doesn't recruit players, except for those reminder gifts.

You'd think that a $1 million purse, plus a week in the nation's capital in spring, would be enticing. Players also get free transportation, free food, reduced room rates, a day care center for kids, and special perks like the afternoon coffee at the vice president's mansion that Barbara Bush put on for the players' wives two years ago. This year, it's a Potomac cruise at night.

Even more to the point, the PGA Tour players own the TPC at Avenel where the Kemper is played. It's their tournament on their course. You'd think they'd have the loyalty, or good sense, to support their own interests. After all, only nine tour events are played on TPC stadium courses. Don't you take care of your own product?

Apparently not.

There's a code of honor on tour that past champions always return to the towns where they've won unless the sponsor says, "Thanks, but we don't need you." The exceptions are superstars who've won so many places they couldn't possibily go back to all of them.

That's one reason why Tom Kite, Craig Stadler and Bill Glasson are here. They are good sports. But you don't see Fred Couples, do you?

"We're amazed that he's not here," says Brundred. "We don't know where he went. His agent couldn't find him."

The PGA Tour has a rich market in the Washington area, but it appears to be milking it rather than husbanding it. A lot of golf goodwill was built up here in the '80s, but it can be squandered.

"We played Avenel a year too early," says Brundred of the course that is now hosting its fourth Kemper. "You don't bulldoze, throw down some grass seed, then play a tournament six months later. There were bad first impressions made on some players, including Greg Norman. I think they owe it to us, and to the course, and to themselves, since the tour players own this course, to come back and take another look. Even if they come on their own {time}."

It's ironic that Ballesteros, who's feuded with PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman for years, should be saving face for a tournament that Beman brought to his home town and a course Beman partially designed. Mostly, Ballesteros is here by luck. He wants to play two straight weeks in the States before the Open to change his luck. Hello, Kemper.

"What's hurt us the last three years is the schedule," adds Brundred. "In '88, the U.S. Open was at Brookline outside Boston. People skipped the Kemper, played in Westchester the week before the Open and just went on up. Last year, the Open was at Oak Hill {Rochester}. Same thing."

So, did the tour protect the Kemper Open this season? Au contraire. The tour appears to have protected Westchester, moving it to the week after the Open.

"This year, the tour, in all its wisdom, moved the Western Open {in the Chicago suburbs} to the week before the U.S. Open at Medinah {Chicago}. Well, everybody is going to play there" in the Western, said Brundred yesterday with asperity. "The players didn't just skip us. A lot of players took both last week {Atlanta} and this week off. They're rich enough to do it."

Atlanta did attract Curtis Strange, Larry Mize, Nick Price, Chip Beck, Bob Tway, Lanny Wadkins, Jodie Mudd and others who aren't at the Kemper.

"The scheduling favors us from now on," concludes Brundred. "The next three years, we have a pretty good shot at a good field. The Open'll be in Minnesota, St. Louis and probably Pebble Beach."

Then, Westchester shouldn't have a geographical edge.

"What's the definition of a good field, anyway?" says Brundred. "Any of seventy players can win these days. Our fans know that they are going to see good golf . . . Heck, we had some trouble getting players when we were at Congressional. God couldn't design a course that all these guys would like.

"Washington people are attuned to the whole atmosphere of a tour event," he says. "If you and I played they'd come. Well, that's stretching it. But the great thing is that our fans know that while this is a sporting event, it's a circus too."

P.T. Barnum said there's a sucker born every minute. Is the PGA Tour trying to test that maxim in Washington?

Solutions are simple. First, shape up the new Avenel course or hush up about it. If players hate it, find out what they want and fix it. It's their course and their problem, not the public's.

Next, the tour needs to monitor its own fields. Pros conveniently claim to be "independent contractors" when they set their schedules, yet they take big profits as a group when they build a Tournament Players course. You can't have it both ways. The Kemper Open is a second-line product at a top price. Shame on you guys for needing Seve to save your image on your own course.

Beman should try to make sure Kemper doesn't get bushwhacked by more moves like the Western Open switch. Deane, we've seen Brad Faxon.

Finally, the Kemper needs to be more aggressive in recruiting players. How could a change hurt? You couldn't get a weaker field than this if you sent out invitations that said: "Purse: $1 million. Come if you feel like it."