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Is Expensive New Fan Format Simply Rope-a-Dope for ‘90s?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

GolfWatch, Jack Vickers’ vision of how golf tournaments should be enjoyed at the corporate level, made its debut Thursday at the Nissan Open and received surprisingly good ratings.

One thousand of the record first-day crowd of 16,738 had paid $1,500--or their corporations paid it--to enjoy special treatment at Riviera Country Club.

The privileged were easy to spot, inside their specially roped-off walking corridors or not, because they all carried green fairway folding seats so they can sit when they are in front of the not-so-privileged customers.

“I didn’t even know they were any better off than we were,” said Leslie Woods, who drove from Temecula and paid her $20 to follow Tiger Woods for 18 holes. “I saw every shot Tiger hit.”

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Larry Thiel, the trouble-shooter of Vickers’ project, was elated when told of Woods’ comment.

“We’ve told all our staff to listen to all complaints and all suggestions, so we can act on them in the future,” Thiel said. “We impress on our guests that they must sit and not disturb the normal gallery. So far, everything I’ve heard is pretty positive.”

Vickers, a multimillionaire oil executive from Colorado, said he got the idea of having special lanes for high-paying fans when he was driving on a Southern California freeway and watched Diamond Lane drivers whizzing past his car.

“I’m very pleased with the first day,” Vickers said. “It worked out as well as I could have hoped.”

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Essentially, the corporate crowd is little different from the masses.

The three rows of balcony seats overlooking the 17th green--one of the most picturesque viewing sites anywhere in golf--were relatively empty most of the morning. However, as the Woods threesome drew closer, the stands began to fill, and by the time Corey Pavin, Fred Couples and Payne Stewart arrived at the 17th hole--three groups ahead of Woods--they had filled up.

It was nearly closing in on noon at the time. Coffee had been the drink of choice earlier, but now it was time for mixed drinks and other spirits: Bloody Marys and screwdrivers. Later, most calls were for beer, until the last threesomes straggled home and it was time for martinis and Bailey’s Irish cream.

In addition to a full-service bar, also ready for the taking from humidors were $12 cigars. Maybe it was because they were free (the common conception of people with corporate badges was that everything is a freebie), but it seemed nearly every man--and some women--had a cigar. Few were lit. Most were either being chewed, or twirled for show between drinks.

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“If you want a seat at 17, or in the Panorama Suite [above the hill overlooking the 18th green], you’d better get there early on Saturday and Sunday and be prepared to watch one group after another,” Thiel warned.

As soon as Woods putted out on the 17th, making a birdie after hitting his second shot on the 578-yard par-five hole in a greenside bunker, the seats emptied. By the time Donnie Hammond, Dave Stockton Jr. and Olin Browne reached the green behind Woods, Tom Watson and Fred Funk, only one spectator remained.

“I was here when Dave’s dad won the L.A. Open 20 years ago [actually 23], and I’m rooting for the kid,” the spectator said. The younger Stockton, starting his fourth season on the tour, responded with a par and finished with a two-under-par 69.

The announced attendance was more than double last year’s Thursday count of 8,100.

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The Tiger Woods watch brought out a record media request of more than 400, up from the normal 175. Among the unusual requests were ones from Internet sites, such as Tourgolf.com, and IGolf.com.

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Only at a golf tournament:

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On one hole early in the morning, with no one else within 100 yards of the green except players, caddies and a scorekeeper, a marshal dutifully held high above his head a paddle that said, “QUIET.”

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Hal Sutton, who won the PGA at Riviera in 1983, probably won’t be around this weekend. Not after taking a quadruple-bogey seven on the 170-yard sixth hole that led to an 80, high round of the day. . . . There are four thirds in the event--Davis Love III, P.H. Horgan III, Hugh Royer III and Tommy Armour III.

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Two of Southern California’s three club professionals played quite well on the big stage.

Kelly Manos of Cypress, a pro at Big Canyon Country Club, and Brad Sherfy of Camarillo, who plays out of the Mulligan Golf Center in Torrance, each shot two-over 73. Terry Ferraro of La Quinta, a pro at Desert Princess Country Club, shot 78.


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