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Getting back in the swing // GOLF 1997

The first of 16 major professional golf tournaments in Florida begins today, the start of a new golf season.

Of course, the end of one golf season tends to blur with the beginning of another.

If you were channel surfing over the weekend, you saw Greg Norman defeating Scott Hoch for $1-million in the Anderson Consulting World Championship. That tournament began in April and concluded Sunday, although Norman was crowned the 1996 champion.

Those new to the Golf Channel saw Irish Open highlights from last year, proving how difficult it is to fill 24 hours of continuous golf programing.

Which brings us to today, the official beginning of the 1997 golf season. This is when we start keeping score again, when the tournaments mean something.

The first tournament on the PGA Tour calendar is the $1.2-million Mercedes Championships in Carlsbad, Calif. Formerly known as the Tournament of Champions, it brings together 32 players who won PGA Tour events in 1996.

The first tournament on the LPGA Tour calendar is the $700,000 Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions in Fort Lauderdale. Now in its fourth year, it brings together 37 players who won tournaments in the past two LPGA seasons, and LPGA Hall of Famers.

The Senior PGA Tour waits a week before its tournament of champions, the MasterCard Championship in Hawaii.

By the time the season ends in November, PGA, LPGA and Senior players will have competed in some 120 events for some $150-million in prize money.

And a whopping 16 of those events will be in Florida, including two in the Tampa Bay area: the GTE Classic, a Senior PGA Tour event at the TPC of Tampa Bay (Feb. 14-16); and the JCPenney Classic, a mixed-team tournament featuring PGA, Senior PGA and LPGA pros at the Innisbrook-Hilton Resort (Dec. 4-7).