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Big-time golf headed this way

The Tampa Bay area is expected to step into the big leagues of golf, getting a full-field PGA Tour event to be played the week before the prestigious Tour Championship, and with one of the sport's biggest sponsors.

Tiger Woods could be coming, too.

The proposed Buick Championship would be played the last week of October at the Westin Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor beginning in 2003, pending approval of the PGA Tour policy board.

But the tournament already is listed among a group of events to be televised by ABC-TV, which released its 2003-2006 schedule Monday as part of a new, more lucrative television contract with the PGA Tour.

"We're as excited as we can be," said Gerald Goodman, tournament director for the Tampa Bay Classic presented by Buick, which will be played at Innisbrook in September this year. The name will not change until 2003.

"With the date before the Tour Championship, we think it means we'll have a high caliber of players that will come here year in and year out. It's very exciting."

PGA Tour spokesman Bob Combs said Monday that changes to the tour schedule must first be approved by the policy board, which meets in September.

"Obviously, Tampa Bay has worked well as an opposite event (to another PGA Tour-sponsored tournament)," Combs said. "It remains under serious consideration for a full-field event, but has to go through full approval."

Goodman said the tour has given him dates for 2003-2006 that fall in the last week of October each year. The 2003 tournament is scheduled for Oct. 30-Nov. 2.

It is a particularly pleasing spot on the schedule because many end-of-the-year honors and perks are still at stake.

Players vying to keep their PGA Tour card as well as those striving to get into the Tour Championship, which invites only the top 30 money winners, typically play a heavy schedule toward the end of the year.

The tournament also would provide a mini fall Florida swing as it would follow the National Car Rental Golf Classic at Walt Disney World.

The proposed event is a huge step for Suncoast Golf Charities Inc., the non-profit organization that has run a professional tournament since the late 1970s when it was known as the JCPenney Classic.

Two years ago, the JCPenney Co. ended its relationship with Suncoast Golf Charities Inc. because of the rising cost of staging a PGA Tour event. (JCPenney signed as sponsor of an LPGA Tour event, then dropped out of golf.)

That gave the Tampa Bay area a one-year opportunity to have a regular PGA Tour event called the Tampa Bay Classic _ but with no guarantee for the future. Clearwater's John Huston won last year's tournament at Innisbrook's Copperhead course, which was played opposite the Presidents Cup.

Buick signed on to be a presenting sponsor for 2001 and 2002, when the tournament will be played the same week as the American Express Invitational, a World Golf Championship event that takes the top 50 available players from the World Golf Ranking.

All along, it had been Goodman's hope to secure a date with no conflicting event. In essence, that became reality Monday.

While Buick will remain a presenting sponsor for the next two years, details still need to be worked out for 2003-2006, pending approval of the policy board, according to Jim McGovern, director of Buick Golf Marketing.

"We think that the Tampa Bay area presents us with some opportunities that will enable us to get to more of our customers," McGovern said. "We have a very strong dealer body there. That was one of the factors in our decision to move into a position as a presenting sponsor the next two years. It's a very strong market opportunity for us. The senior event there (the Verizon Classic) is very strong, and hopefully we'll be able to get the same kind of support they've enjoyed."

Buick is in its fifth decade as the PGA Tour's original corporate sponsor and is the corporate sponsor of four events _ the Buick Invitational (San Diego), the Buick Classic (Westchester, N.Y.), the Buick Open (Grand Blanc, Mich.) and the Buick Challenge (Pine Mountain, Ga.). Buick has been the "Official Car of the PGA Tour" since 1984.

And the new event could mean the Tampa Bay area will get to see Woods up close. One of Woods' major endorsement deals is with Buick, and although he is not required to play in Buick tournaments, he has generally done so. This year, he played in the Buick Invitational and Buick Classic. He also has committed to next month's Buick Open. Woods, who lives in Orlando, played in the 1996 JCPenney Classic and finished second with partner Kelli Kuehne.

The new event could expect a purse in the $4-million range, with some $750,000 or more going to the winner.

All of the tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule can expect a purse increase beginning in 2003 due to the new television contract the tour negotiated with ABC, CBS, NBC and cable networks ESPN, USA and the Golf Channel. The deal is reportedly worth $850-million over four years, a 48 percent increase over the current contract that expires after the 2002 season.

This year's Tampa Bay Classic presented by Buick will be played Sept. 13-16 and will have a $2.5-million purse.

"These next two years give us a chance to get ready for 2003," Goodman said. "We have to get prepared for that."