It's virtually an annual rite of June at TPC at Avenel: Peruse the entry list, count the players in the field in the top 50 on the money list, the top 50 in the world rankings, and the number of PGA Tour winners during the current season. Usually, the result is what some critics consider a less-than-stellar field.
Don't tell that to Tom Lehman, the 1996 British Open champion who contended in several U.S. Opens in the 1990s, including the '97 event at Congressional that he probably could have won if not for an errant second shot in the lake on the 17th hole. Lehman is in town this week for the Booz Allen Classic, and while his earnings ($356,038) and world ranking (107) are not what they once were, he's still capable of entertaining his many fans and possibly winning somewhere along the way.
"It's all about 'What have you done for me lately?' " Lehman said yesterday on the Avenel driving range. "It's always been that way. It used to be if there was no Greg Norman or Fred Couples in the field, it was a bad field. Now, if Tiger's not here, or Ernie Els, Phil [Mickelson] or Vijay [Singh], it's a bad field. It's just not the case.
"I think the PGA Tour hasn't really done a good enough job in creating stars. There are a lot of really, really good players out here this week. The perception is that there are only four or five guys, and then there's everyone else. That's not fair."
For those playing the numbers game, only Adam Scott, the 23-year-old Australian is in the top 10 on the money list. He's also the highest-ranked player in the field, at No. 15. Twelve of the top 50 money winners are playing here this week, and nine of the top 50 in the world rankings.
"It doesn't bug me, but it's not fair" to criticize the strength of this week's field, said veteran Billy Mayfair, the winner of five PGA Tour events, the last in 1998. "Just because a lot of these guys aren't considered stars, it doesn't mean they can't play. Everyone out here pretty much has earned a card to play, and they're all good. You'll still see great golf; you just won't see the headliners."
This year, the Booz Allen has been hindered by its place on the schedule, a week after the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Most of the game's elite players try to peak the week before an Open, and many are usually too frazzled by the effort to even think about playing the following week.
Next year, of course, will be the best situation for Washington's PGA Tour stop since 1997, when the then-Kemper Open was played the week before the U.S. Open, which was held across the street at Congressional. Next year's Booz Allen will be at Congressional, a traditional and storied course, the week before the 2005 Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Tournament officials expect the best field in tournament history next June, because of the timing of the event, and the attraction of the venue.
When the tournament moved from Congressional to Avenel in 1987, a number of players were unhappy with the layout and condition of the course. Greg Norman wanted to blow up the ninth green. Nick Price once said the 13th hole was an abomination. Many felt the course opened a year or two too soon and was not ready for prime time, leading some players to stay away.
That dissatisfaction has mostly abated over the years. Trees have grown; the original grasses in the fairway have been replaced. The greens have been improved, and this week, several players have said they've never seen Avenel look so pleasing to the eye.
"Honestly, I like this golf course the way it is," said 2001 champion Frank Lickliter II, mindful that the course will undergo a major renovation next year while the event is being played at Congressional. "There's a lot of tradition here. To come in and add [more] yards to it doesn't make any sense to me. I love it [the tournament], I loved it before I won. It was always a place that I was always going to come back to and always support."
Among the more fascinating threesomes playing together over the first two days is the one teeing off on No. 1 at 12:30 today. That group includes long-hitting John Daly and short but accurate local favorite Fred Funk.
"Every guy on the planet hits it by me," said Funk, the former Maryland golf coach fresh off his career-best sixth-place finish at last week's U.S. Open. "John is just fun to watch. It's no big deal if he's 60, 80, 100 yards ahead of you, because he's going to do that to almost everybody. It won't affect me. I'm just going to publicly say that."
The Booz Allen field includes four 2004 tournament winners -- Jonathan Kaye at the FBR Open in Phoenix, Daly at the Buick Invitational in San Diego, Adam Scott at the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla., and Joey Sindelar at the Wachovia in Charlotte. There are also nine past major champions, including the reigning PGA Championship winner, Shaun Micheel.
"Though my win may have been shocking to the media and to a lot of fans, it wasn't for the players," Micheel said yesterday. "Hey, if you can qualify for the PGA Tour, you can play, and you can win any week you tee it up."