The Kemper Open begins with a less-than-illustrious field on a golf course damaged in places by bad weather, but it has an odd promise. It's the sort of tournament in which the ordinary suddenly becomes interesting, the journeyman an instant celebrity.
Who or what will save it? The burden is largely on Seve Ballesteros of Spain, the winner of five major championships. He is making his first appearance in this area in eight years, and is one of just a few players with marquee value among the 156 who will tee off on the par-71 Tournament Players Club at Avenel today. Ballesteros never had laid eyes on the course until three days ago, he is jet-lagged and his practice time was curtailed by a deluge of rain.
"My philosophy is that if you are playing well, it doesn't matter how well you know the course," he said.
Avenel, the 6,917-yard, heavily wooded design, has matured greatly since the Kemper moved from Congressional Country Club three years ago. But it continues to draw expressions of vague dissatisfaction from players. For the first time since it debuted in 1987, there are no major architectural changes, and the greens are well-manicured. But the course continues to lack grooming, with sparse fairways and rough due to the temperature swings and rain this winter and spring.
As for the field, the glaring statistic is this: None of the top 13 money winners on the PGA Tour are here. But to dwell on that lack would be a disservice to Tom Kite, the 1987 Kemper champion and 1988 runner-up, who is the wealthiest player in tour history. Avenel speaks to Kite and he speaks to it, always uncomplaining of its conditions and always a favorite.
Avenel seems to appeal to a type: straight off the tee, able with a wedge, a strong putter, and discriminating off the tee, perhaps choosing a 2-iron no matter how loudly the driver cries out to be hit. Those are characteristics of the past Avenel champions -- Kite, who leads the tour in greens in regulation and originally set the course record of 64, Morris Hatalsky and defending champion Tom Byrum.
"You just have to be patient," said Byrum, who has missed the cut in nine of 17 events this season. "Keep the ball in the fairway. You've got to back off."
There have been occasional suggestions that a long hitter can prevail here. Craig Stadler is the most consistent money earner in the tournament, and every year attempts to club the course into submission, as with his record-tying 64 in 1987. Greg Norman of Australia also shot a 64 that year to equal the feat of shorter-hitting Kite. But over the long run the more attacking players have been undone by sudden disaster, while the less imposing have been more successful.
"When they miss, they miss in the proper places," Corey Pavin said.
It is hard to predict what that will mean for Ballesteros, who is prone to wildness off the tee, offset by his scrambling ability. He described himself earlier this week as "not completely in control of my whole game." He does not particularly care for the strange twists of TPC courses, and was a great lover of epic Congressional. But his first round at Avenel, in yesterday's pro-am, was a largely untroubled 70. The chief point of interest in the opening round will be how he adapts his game and whether he can control his impatience.
"The way TPC courses are designed, luck is a little more important," he said. "There are so many funny lies, hills and breaks. Luck gets more involved."
Beyond Ballesteros and Kite are some players who have been forgotten in the furor over so many notable absentees. Two-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin has lost some of his consistency, winless since 1985 with his 45th birthday coming up Sunday, but he contended at the Players Championship this season before finishing fifth on that TPC course. Avenel suits him. Scott Hoch, the 1989 Masters runner-up, has been among the top 25 seven times this season, three times fifth or better.
Perhaps a local player, Fred Funk, will lend a rooting interest much as he did last year with his opening 65 and Webb Heintzelman did two years ago when he was in contention throughout the tournament. Heintzelman has struggled with various ailments and missed 10 cuts in 15 events, but Funk, the former University of Maryland golf coach, is experiencing some of his best play since he struck out on tour in 1989, coming here on a roll of three strong tournaments.
He tied for 13th at the USF&G Classic, for seventh at the Byron Nelson, and for 12th at Atlanta last weekend to earn $81,861. And this week he has a home-field advantage. The difference has been that some long hours of labor on his short game have finally begun to pay off.
"That's the main reason I'm playing better," he said. "Turning a 75 into a 72, or a 71 into a 67, that's a big difference around here."
A victor could come from the large contingent of middle echelon players, some of whom arrived with suggestive recent results. Tommy Armour III is experiencing a breakthrough season. The grandson of the golf legend tied for second five strokes behind Byrum last year. He got his first tour victory at the Phoenix Open in January and two weeks later was second in San Diego. He has five top-10 finishes and has earned $313,352.
Pavin, a runner-up in the 1985 Kemper, tied for second two weeks ago at Colonial as he put together four low rounds for the first time all season. His problem has been a sudden explosion, such as 79 in the final round at the USF&G Classic, despite which he tied for 13th.
"I feel good, like my year is just starting," he said. "I want that trend to keep going. If it does, I'll be in some golf tournaments."