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Fields of Green

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Times Staff Writer

It’s not too late to extend birthday wishes to Tiger Woods, who turned 27 less than two weeks ago. If his fellow PGA Tour players want to, they still could give him a gift, something he could use when he begins his seventh full year as a professional, maybe something like a limo to make sure he shows up at tournaments as often as possible.

That’s because Woods has already given the other players their presents. And when the 2003 pro golf tour begins today with the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua on Maui, it’s clear to see the success Woods has had helping to put money in other players’ pockets, not to mention his own, of course.

Follow the money: In 1997, Woods’ first full year, the total PGA Tour prize money was $80 million. In 2003, it’s $236 million, which is nearly a 300% increase, and $38 million more than a year ago.

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The PGA Tour closed two new television deals in the Woods era and Woods had a hand in both of them, because his presence in televised events spiked the ratings higher than golf has ever seen. Then, armed with higher ratings, the tour felt free to ask tournament sponsors for higher purses. In 2000, 10 tournaments had purses of at least $4 million. Last year, there were 27. In 2003, 41 of the 48 official money tournaments offer purses of at least $4 million -- more than a 400% increase in only three years.

So as a new season of professional golf kicks off, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on what are easily and indisputably the two most important factors in the sport right now: Woods and money.

Tiger has enabled more players to make more cash than ever before. That’s why the other players should shave swooshes into their heads to say thanks.

Woods isn’t playing at Kapalua because he is still resting since having arthroscopic knee surgery Dec. 12. He is expected to play his first tournament Feb. 13 at Torrey Pines, but Woods said on his Web site that he might not.

“I can’t really judge whether I will be ready to go by then,” said Woods, who is at home near Orlando, Fla., and hasn’t swung a club since the surgery.

As usual, Woods rumors abound. There is some speculation that Woods would come back the week before the Buick Invitational and play at Pebble Beach. There is also speculation that Woods might skip the entire West Coast swing and begin his season in Florida in March.

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However it plays out, Woods isn’t the only big name missing at Kapalua. Phil Mickelson is at home in Scottsdale, Ariz., waiting for the birth of his third child. Also missing: Davis Love III and Davis Toms. But they have different reasons from Woods and Mickelson. The Mercedes field is limited to players who won tournaments last year and neither Love nor Toms did that.

If that’s surprising, it’s only the beginning of the unexpected. With the entire season of 48 tournaments to go, there will be no shortage of story lines to follow this year.

Woods has won 34 times on the PGA Tour -- nine in 2000 and eight in 1999 -- and has eight major titles. Last year, he won the Masters and the U.S. Open, and even if he wins only one major in 2003, he would move into a tie with Ben Hogan and Gary Player for third place, behind only Jack Nicklaus with 18 and Walter Hagen with 11.

There were 18 first-time winners last year -- the most ever -- and that reflects, what, parity? Depth is probably a better description.

Who’s hot: Woods, Mickelson, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington, Vijay Singh, Colin Montgomerie.

Who’s not: David Duval, Jesper Parnevik, Jeff Maggert, Carlos Franco, Lee Westwood, Hal Sutton.

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Breakouts: Charles Howell III is no longer an unknown, but there are a lot of experts who feel he’s ready to make a big move in 2003. Howell, who turns 24 in June, had seven top-10 finishes last year and won the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill in Virginia. He was ninth on the money list with $2.7 million and can be expected to do even better if he improves his putting. Howell ranked 118th in putting, but he was first in total driving and fourth in driving distance. What’s more, his scoring average of 70.02 was 12th best on the PGA Tour.

Others to watch: Jonathan Byrd, last year’s rookie of the year; Aaron Baddeley, who earned his PGA Tour card by finishing in the top 15 on what was the Buy.com Tour and is now the Nationwide Tour; and Chris Riley, a polished talent who’s already a tournament winner, despite the fact that nobody seems to know he’s even out there.

Fadeout: That’s probably too harsh and you should expect him to make a comeback, but Duval is a puzzling case. Last year was a washout, even though he made $838,045, but that’s the lowest of his eight-year career. He turns 32 this year and has 13 victories, but only two since the 1999 season. He also has only one major title -- the 2001 British Open -- but that’s still one more than Mickelson. Bothered by the breakup of his relationship with his fiancee, in addition to a bad back, Duval had trouble keeping the ball on the fairway, and then getting it on the green. He ranked 176th in fairways hit and 100th in greens in regulation. In 1999, when he won four times, Duval was third in greens in regulation.

Spotlights: Only a suggestion, but try Andy Miller and Ty Tryon. Miller, Johnny Miller’s son, made it out of the horrors of qualifying school. Tryon, 18, was the youngest player to earn his PGA Tour card a year ago, but he had mononucleosis for most of the year and would have lost his exempt status if he hadn’t asked for and received a medical exemption.

Augustagate: It won’t go away, mainly because the two people at the opposite ends of the issue won’t let it. Martha Burk of the National Council of Women’s Organizations has called for protests at the Masters in April, and Hootie Johnson, chairman at Augusta National, isn’t budging on inviting a woman to be a member.*

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2003 GOLF TOUR SCHEDULES

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