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The International: A dandy tournament in search of a niche

Posted: Thursday, August 04, 2005

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. — Some think it's goofy golf. Others find it to be a refreshing change.

Twenty years since it started, the International — one of golf's most unique events — is still going strong, but also still looking to find a more fitting niche within the PGA Tour.

This is the tournament played at altitude — about 6,000 feet, an elevation at which the ball flies about 10 percent farther.

But the real uniqueness of the International is the use of the modified Stableford scoring system, one that awards five points for eagles, two for birdies, nothing for pars and deducts one for bogeys.

It places a premium on aggressiveness and turns a couple of the par-5s, especially the uphill, 492-yard 17th hole, into must-see events that can swing the tournament.

''The aggressive people get rewarded here. Those that don't pay a price,'' said Greg Norman, who won the tournament in 1989. ''I like it here. I like the system.''

Last year, Rod Pampling made eagle on 17 to capture the tournament, his first win on the PGA Tour. Three years ago, it was 1994 champion Steve Lowery who knocked his second shot in on 17 for a double-eagle, worth eight points that vaulted him from the middle of the pack to second place with one hole left. He lost by one point to Rich Beem.

The International has produced its share of unsuspecting champions — Pampling, Lowery, Beem the week before his big win at the PGA Championship.

But it has also put some big-time names in the winner's circle. Phil Mickelson won in 1993 and 1997, Davis Love III in 1990 and 2003, Vijay Singh in 1998 and Ernie Els in 2000.

''I look forward to it,'' Mickelson said. ''It's no screwy tournament. I look forward to playing it. I like the need for aggressive play.''

As much as the scoring system, it has been the ability to attract big names — or lack thereof — that has been the longtime conundrum for this tournament.

In the early days, the International was played the week after the PGA Championship, something of a letdown week for players, who have just completed the year's last major. At the request of tournament officials, the event was moved to one week before the PGA Championship in 2000.

It seemed like the perfect setup, but it signaled the last the International would see of Tiger Woods, who likes to use that week to tune up for the year's final major instead of coming to a tournament where the ball flies farther and the scoring system is strange.

Ideas have been floated about moving the tournament to June, or trying to turn it into a World Golf Championship event when the new TV contract goes into effect in 2007.

''It's been common knowledge that we've got to look at some alternatives for the future of this tournament,'' International executive director Larry Thiel told the Denver Post.

One good thing about the timing is that the International and PGA Championship are the final two tournaments in which players can gather points to make the President's Cup team (in odd years) or Ryder Cup team (in even years).

It puts some pressure on Love, who is ranked ninth coming into this week. The top 10 get automatic spots on the team.

Mickelson is here. So are Retief Goosen, Fred Couples, Norman and David Duval. Singh was once a regular but is skipping this year. Els is out for the season with a knee injury.

Those who are entered will play a tournament like no other, but one still well toned down from its brash beginnings two decades ago.

When the event was first played in 1986, there were cuts after every round and all players started back at zero at the beginning of each round.

The event was modified over the years — the first-round cut was eliminated in 1989 — and the events of 1992 triggered the final change.

That year, with all players starting the final round at zero, Brad Faxon teed off early on Sunday, birdied six of his first eight holes and had 14 points, which was good enough to win. One problem: Faxon was done playing by the time the television broadcast began.

The other problem was that, had the scores been cumulative, the winner would have been none other than fan favorite John Daly.

The next year, points were made cumulative and Mickelson was the winner.

Things haven't changed since.

''I think it's fantastic,'' Pampling said. ''Just look at Steve Lowery a few years ago. He came from nowhere, which formally you can't do in a stroke-play event.''



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