By Jason Lloyd
and Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal staff writers
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem understands the logjam of events occurring around the area this week. From his perspective, there isn't much that can be done.
The Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club will again collide with the NFL's Hall of Fame induction ceremony this weekend in Canton. While both events would be better served if held on different weekends, Finchem doesn't think that's very realistic — at least from golf's perspective.
''This date works perfectly for getting every top player here,'' he said Wednesday after speaking at an Akron Roundtable Luncheon. ''That's not so easy. This is the perfect week for the international players because they're coming in to play next week (in the PGA Championship). Our difficulties are more serious than the NFL's, but I can't speak for (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell.''
The money offered at Firestone doesn't hurt, either. First place this weekend is worth $1.53 million — a purse richer than all four of this year's majors.
''We wouldn't mind moving it, but we want to do what's in the best interest of the tournament,'' Finchem said. ''That has broader implications than what's happening here. It's a global event. It's a prize event for our television partners and one of the reasons is because of the field.''
Tom Watson was honored by the Northern Ohio Golf Charities as this year's Ambassador of Golf.
Watson, winner of eight majors, is active in raising funds for Lou Gehrig's disease and has made several trips to visit U.S. military bases in the Middle East. He also works to develop golf courses for junior players.
''He's the perfect choice,'' Finchem said. ''He is the ultimate ambassador. People in Scotland love Tom Watson. The way he's handled himself over the years, his professionalism, his commitment to charity and junior golf, he is the perfect choice. I'm delighted to be able to be part of it. I'm really excited.''
Watson said he was immediately struck by the paintings of the past ambassadors that line the clubhouse walls at Firestone.
''Everybody from Bob Hope to Bing Crosby to Jack Nicklaus to Barbara Nicklaus to Pete Dye, Deane Beman, there's just a variety,'' Watson said. ''It's the people that comprise the whole fabric of the game and to be included in that is a great honor.''
Watson recalled being at the dinner in 1981 when Chi Chi Rodriguez received the first Ambassador of Golf award.
''Of course he had a lot of funny things to say,'' Watson said.
Watson spoke fondly of his appearance at Firestone during the 1975 World Series of Golf, the last year the tournament featured the four major champions. He played with Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Lou Graham.
''I remember walking up the 18th hole and talking to Jack. I hit my second shot on the green and was going to win it,'' he said. ''It was the first time I was kind of head-to-head with Jack. That was kind of an omen of things to come.''
Watson said he still remembers his game plan on how to play the South Course. That's a wealth of information the 24 first-timers in this year's Bridgestone field would love to have.
''I remember what I played on each hole and how I played it and how I wanted to play it,'' he said. ''That's something I don't have much any more, game plans. I kind of go by the yardage. That's probably the reason I make such dumb mistakes.''
Watson got special treatment from the clubhouse staff, at least when it came to dessert.
''I saw the old waitress and I said, 'Do you still have that butterscotch pie?' and she said, 'It's not butterscotch, it's crunchy cream,' '' he said. ''I said, 'It sure is butterscotch to me.' She came to me about 15 minutes later and said, 'We're making you up one.' ''
No. 1 in danger
Tiger Woods has been ranked the world's top golfer for 270 consecutive weeks, but that run could end this weekend.
Woods, who has won seven times at Firestone, could be passed by Phil Mickelson and Lee Westwood. Woods is paired with Westwood for the first two rounds today and Friday.
According to pgatour.com, a victory by Mickelson on Sunday and he'll become No. 1, regardless of where Woods finishes. Woods has been the top player in the world for a total of 612 weeks.
Westwood, ranked third, could supplant Woods with a victory and Woods finishing worse than a two-way tie for second.
According to the Web site, Mickelson must finish at least fourth to have a shot at the top ranking. Even finishing fourth, he'll need Woods to finish at least 38th.
Mickelson did not talk to reporters Wednesday but did address becoming No. 1 on Tuesday, saying it ''absolutely'' matters to him.
''It would be a very important thing,'' he said. ''But it's not something I'm focusing on as much as it is trying to get my game sharp for these upcoming events, the final playoffs as well as the majors.''
Jeff Overton's new girlfriend is an opera singer. Where exactly does a golfer meet an opera singer?
''Bloomington, Ind., the No. 1 opera school in America,'' Overton said, conceding that he doesn't know much about opera and she doesn't know much about golf.
Overton said his girlfriend was fretting one day when she looked at the leaderboard and saw Overton was even par, while a few other golfers were plus-2.
''She said, 'Dangit, he doesn't have enough points,' '' Overton said. ''She thought I needed more points.''
They're catching up
Finchem was golfing in Scotland before the British Open when a caddie started ribbing him about the problems Americans have endured this season. International players have won 11 of the past 15 tournaments.
The caddie, Finchem said, asked if the U.S. would even bother sending a team to the Ryder Cup this year.
''He said, 'It's over. We're winning all your tournaments, we're winning all our tournaments,' '' Finchem said. ''The world is catching up. We're creating more good players in the United States, but over time, there will be more players outside the United States.''
Finchem pointed to China, where just 40 golf courses existed when the World Cup played there in 1995. Now there are 545 courses today. That number will continue to increase now that golf has been added as an Olympic sport.
Finchem recently read about a study that predicted 35 to 40 percent of the total golf market will be in Asia within 20 years.
''The downside is that this is the biggest [golf] market in the world and we don't want to go the way of men's tennis and have very few American players on the leaderboard,'' he said. ''Long term, that's not a good thing. . . . I think we're doing fine in the U.S. developing new players, but we have to do a better job of broadening the demographic of the players.''
Louis Oosthuizen is still learning to cope with his newly acquired fame. The British Open champ had a newly constructed bridge built over No. 9 at his home course, Albertinia Golf Club in South Africa, named in his honor.
Plans for the bridge went into effect long before the Open victory. It was completed about two weeks before he won, then it was dedicated to him after the victory.
Oosthuizen said he received a phone call from Greg Norman on his way home from St. Andrews.
''He said I was the first person to get him in front of a television watching 18 holes of golf, from first swing to last putt, so that was something,'' Oosthuizen said. ''He said it was just great to watch and he enjoyed it.''
Robert Allenby withdrew Wednesday morning with a knee injury. He will not be replaced, reducing the field to 81. . . . Finchem said this weekend's tournament will be broadcast to 225 countries. . . . Stuart Appleby's celebration Tuesday was held at Gervasi Vineyard & Italian Bistro in Canton. Appleby had plenty to celebrate — shooting a 59 last Sunday to win the Greenbrier Classic, his first victory in four years.