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With new TV contract, Florida breathes a sigh of relief

The PGA Tour's new television contract with the broadcast networks announced this week figured to have major implications in Florida. Locally, the changes are huge, with the addition of a new event at Innisbrook. The deal is just as big elsewhere in the state.

That's because there was so much talk of upheaval during the spring Florida swing of events. The Honda Classic in Coral Springs was in danger of losing its dates. The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach was said to be headed to May. And the Match Play Championship was at least discussed as a possibility for some south Florida venue.

None of it happened.

When the dust settled and the reported $850-million deal was announced Monday, the Florida events were right where they always are: with the Genuity Championship (Doral) leading off the March to the Masters, followed by the Honda Classic, Bay Hill Invitational and Players Championship.

The new deal doesn't kick in until 2003, but Florida golf fans will hardly notice a difference, other than the proposed Buick Championship at Innisbrook's Copperhead course, a tournament that would precede the season-ending Tour Championship.

Moving the Players to May had been one of the most widely discussed possible changes. For years, the PGA Tour has been nudged to get its marquee event away from the Masters and into a month with no other major. Commissioner Tim Finchem went so far as to suggest there was a "50-50" chance the event would move. He even commissioned the TPC-Sawgrass course superintendent to issue a report on the agronomy concerns associated with moving the event to May.

All for naught.

"We did enough work to assure ourselves that it would be played successfully in March or May," said Bob Combs, the tour's senior vice president for public relations and communications. "But it was clear that NBC was committed to keeping it as part of their Florida Swing package. It made good sense to continue it."

It didn't hurt that NBC agreed to broadcast all 18 holes on the weekend. The Players might not be a major, but it will get major coverage. And the PGA Tour players will receive major compensation. Nothing has been announced, but purses figure to go up more. The tour will reap nearly a 50 percent increase from the new TV pact. So players will prosper, too.

LESS GOLF ON GOLF CHANNEL: Sometimes referred to as the Divorce Channel, the Golf Channel has plenty of addicts. Not enough, apparently, to impress the PGA Tour. Although the Golf Channel will be the exclusive home of the Buy.com Tour, the new television agreement takes PGA Tour events away from the all-golf cable network. The Golf Channel will lose its early round coverage of 14 PGA Tour events starting in 2003, with all first- and second-round coverage being seen on USA and ESPN.

RYDER RUN: Pensacola's Joe Durant appeared in excellent shape to make his first Ryder Cup team in April. He had won two PGA Tour events and had a tie for second at the Houston Open. But since then he has been free falling, having not earned a single Ryder Cup point. Once in seventh place, Durant has slipped to the 10th and final qualifying spot. And with no Ryder Cup experience, captain Curtis Strange doesn't figure to make him a captain's choice should he fall outside the top 10.

"I have probably thought about it too much," Durant said. "That's probably why I have played a lot more than I typically would."

Durant has made one cut in his last seven starts, when he tied for 24th at the U.S. Open. Only top-10 finishes earn points.

"At the beginning of the year, I never would have thought I had a chance," Durant said. "It would be a tremendous honor and I'd love to have the opportunity to play."

Next month's PGA Championship will be the last opportunity to make the U.S. team.

LOCALLY: The Tampa Bay Classic is looking for volunteer standard-bearers and caddies for the pro-am that precedes the tournament. The pro-am is Sept. 12 at the Westin Innisbrook Resort. Standard-bearers are needed for the pro-am and the Sept. 13-16 tournament. Call (727) 942-5566 for information.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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