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PGA VETERANS HIT LOCAL GREENS.

Byline: Eugene Tong Staff Writer

VALENCIA - The greens are trimmed and the pros are descending on the fairways of Valencia Country Club this week as the 17th AT&T Classic - the annual PGA Champions Tour event - rolls into town.

The weeklong golf showcase with PGA veterans including Gil Morgan, Tom Kite, Lee Trevino and defending champion Des Smyth begins today with pro/am and celebrity matches, culminating in three days of tournament play, Friday through Sunday, when entrants tee off for a share of the $1.6 million purse.

``You bet I look forward to it,'' said Scott Simpson, who counted seven wins on the PGA Tour and is debuting this year on the age 50-and-over tour. ``It's a really good course. It's tough, but not unfair. You get rewarded for a good golf shot.

``My hopes are to win - that's number one,'' Simpson, 50, said by phone from San Diego last week. ``Other than that, there are a lot of really good players out there. I'm just going to work hard.''

AT&T Classic Executive Director Brian Fitzgerald is looking for another landmark year for the tournament - formerly known as the SBC Classic - with projected growth in attendance. Officials have said the event drew an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 in 2005, and attendance has increased 10 percent to 20 percent each year.

``Everything's looking good,'' he said in an interview last week. ``We got as good a field (of players) as we ever had here. ... The crowd has grown every year here. We've had to plan accordingly with more stands. And we've had a lot more corporate boxes.''

Returning after a break last year are celebrity charity matches. George Lopez, Craig T. Nelson and Dennis Quaid are among the celebrities. Also teeing off is Jerry Rice, one of the NFL's all-time top wide-receivers turned dance floor dynamo who recently appeared in the TV hit ``Dancing with the Stars.''

``The pro/am has been a very hot item of local interest,'' Fitzgerald said. ``If we can get good weather, we expect it to be a record year.''

The forecast is good for the tourney. Rain shortened tournament play to just two days in 2003, but the event went off without a hitch last year, when Los Angeles had the second wettest year on record.

For course superintendent Robert Hertzing, the past week's showers have caused some delays - crews can't work until the fields dry a bit.

``But we're such a well-oiled machine - we've been doing it six years,'' he said. ``We got a lot of last minute detail work. The tents are still going up - just making sure everything is ready.''

The National Weather Service predicts a 50 percent chance of rain Monday, and partly cloudy skies the rest of the week. Hertzing's 24-member grounds crew have worked 10 to 12 hours of overtime the past week, and with 20 hours more expected over tournament week.

``If the rain stays under an inch, we can usually manage it,'' Hertzing said. ``We've had really good weather patterns this winter. We didn't have excessive rain, and we didn't have a cold snap. We're right where we want to be.''

Besides the weather, the quality of match play is the other crucial factor to the event's success.

``Valencia is the type of golf course where the better players really seem to play well,'' Fitzgerald said. ``I would expect that the leader board Saturday and Sunday will reflect those kinds of players. When they do, that means we usually get a good walk-in crowd.''

Three-time winner Joe Inman is eager to tee off at the tournament. He took the top spot 1998-2000 at Wilshire Country Club, just before it moved to Valencia Country Club in 2001.

``It's been a good tournament to me,'' said Inman, 58, during a phone interview from Atlanta last week. ``When you've won a tournament three times in a row, you kind of have good memories of it.

``I think that everyone on the tour lives to come out there early in the year. The weather - even bad weather in Santa Clarita - is not that bad. And it's a great market. The people really enjoy the tournament. They support it.

``And it's a really challenging golf course. That's the kind of tournament - when you put all those together - that all the players want to get up to play for.''

Eugene Tong, (661) 257-5253

eugene.tong(at)dailynews.com

IF YOU GO

AT&T Classic events will be held today through next Sunday at the Valencia Country Club, 27330 N. Tourney Road in Valencia. For ticket and parking information, call the tournament office at (661) 260-1897.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 5, 2006
Words:786
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