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Oregon Classic has solid reputation.

Byline: Ron Bellamy The Register-Guard

JUNCTION CITY - The Oregon Classic golf tournament at Shadow Hills Country Club, which returns for its fifth edition in six years this week, remains a relatively new phenomenon in a community where the Pre Classic invitational track and field meet traces its roots to the early 1970s, and where the minor-league baseball team plays its 50th season next year, and where the biggest sporting attraction, the university football team, has played for more than a century.

However, on the Nationwide Tour - formerly known as the Hogan, Nike and tours - the Oregon Classic is becoming one of the more established stops.

Of the 29 events on the Nationwide Tour this year, leading to the tour championship in Prattville, Ala., in late October, a dozen tournaments have come into existence since the Oregon Classic was launched in 1998; only four have endured since the Hogan Tour was founded in 1990.

And in an economic climate in which securing sponsorships is ever a challenge, there are 15 events that were around when the Oregon Classic started - or debuted after that - and simply don't exist anymore.

That reality both excites and inspires tournament director Chris Roche, whose event generates roughly $90,000 per year for local causes, most prominently for Kidsports to provide playing fees for disadvantaged children.

"I think we are a very good event," Roche said. "Probably, in many ways, well-above what is a high standard of average on our tour. ... It's an awesome event, and I think easily the best golf tournament in Oregon outside of Portland, and we're very proud of everything that has been achieved and is being achieved, but we believe we have room to grow.

"That's the challenge for us, and that's the goal."

This year, the Oregon Classic has a unique opportunity to showcase itself. The previous four tournaments - the event was canceled in 2001 after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 - have competed against Oregon home football games on Saturday, but this week the Ducks are at Arizona, and playing a night game as well.

Roche said he hopes that the Saturday attendance - an estimated 6,750 last year - gets closer to Sunday's, when the crowd was estimated at 14,000. "There's every reason for the sports fan to do both, to enjoy golf during the day and get home for the Ducks at night," he said.

When the tournament begins its four-day run at 7:30 a.m. Thursday - after a youth clinic today, practice rounds on Tuesday and the pro-am tournament on Wednesday - it will offer several compelling stories:

A field that reflects the continued maturation of the PGA Tour's subsidiary tour, originally envisioned as a proving ground for younger pros.

"The young guns are still out there," Roche said, "but I think there are so many more familiar names, and I think that helps draw people and raises the credibility of the tour. People don't really look at it as a minor league anymore."

Based on the most recent entry list, the 156-player field for the Oregon Classic will include 10 golfers who have won on the PGA Tour, led by Mike Sullivan with three wins, and that doesn't include a golfer, Tommy Tolles, who finished No. 16 on the PGA Tour money list in 1996.

The increased prize money on the Nationwide Tour - total purse in the Oregon Classic this year is $450,000, up from $425,000 - and on the PGA Tour itself, as well as the lure of eventually playing on the Champions Tour all work to keep the veterans around longer.

Three golfers with strong local backgrounds - Casey Martin, Eric Johnson and Jeff Quinney - and strong local followings. All three have been very supportive of the tournament - Quinney played it as a pro for the first time last year - and Roche emphasized that their presence, and that of other local golfers, remains vital to the Oregon Classic.

This year, mindful of the attention that Annika Sorenstam got for playing on the PGA Tour, Roche said the Oregon Classic considered inviting teen-age sensation Michelle Wie, scheduled to play in the Boise Open, the next stop on the tour. But that would have required offering one of the two sponsor's exemptions, and Roche said the Oregon Classic, at the insistence of Paul Skillern, chairman of Kendall Automotive Group, the tournament's primary sponsor, remains intent on reserving those to ensure that local golfers can play.

In past years, those exemptions have gone to golfers such as University of Oregon grad Ben Crane, now established on the PGA Tour and a willing supporter of the Oregon Classic. (Last year, unannounced, Crane drove from Portland to help with the youth clinic.) This year, those exemptions go to Johnson and Quinney.

"I think the local component is really important," Roche said. "We really value that. When Annika played in the men's event, it was really tempting, because of all the hype, but our ties here are stronger than that."

The annual mission of Nationwide Tour members to earn PGA Tour cards for next season. They can do that by winning three events, in which case they advance immediately with a "battlefield promotion." Of Oregon Classic entries, Guy Boros is a win away from that.

The golfers also can earn PGA Tour cards for next year by finishing in the top 20 on the final Nationwide Tour money list, up from the top 15 last year. Although the top three money winners this season - Zach Johnson, Tom Carter (who has earned his battlefield promotion) and Joe Ogilvie - are not scheduled to play in the Oregon Classic, 25 of the next 27 are listed as competing here, as well as three of the four former champions - Charles Raulerson, Kelly Gibson and Keoke Cotner.

Last year's winner, Jason Gore, is playing on the PGA Tour; entering the weekend, he ranked No. 166 on the money list with earnings of $176,343.

Activities for the Oregon Classic begin today with Martin, Johnson and Quinney scheduled to conduct a free golf clinic for kids at 4 p.m. at the practice range. There will also be competition at Diamond Woods Golf Course to fill the final 14 spots in the field.

Tuesday, there will be practice rounds all day, with the pro-am held in morning and afternoon sessions Wednesday, and the long-drive contest on hole No. 1 at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Events today through Wednesday are free; ticket prices for the tournament Thursday through Sunday are $8, with seniors 55-and-over admitted for $5. Children under 12 are admitted free with a paid adult.
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Title Annotation:The tournament is becoming an established stop on the Nationwide Tour; Sports
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 8, 2003
Previous Article:No video slots, governor.
Next Article:Questions remain on UO depth chart.

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