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Lefty becomes BellSouth star

DULUTH - The BellSouth Classic prides itself on being the golf tournament that offers great preparation for that little event it precedes in Augusta.

For that reason, the Duluth tourney typically features a field heavy with international players, guys who want to get used to Masters-like conditions and early-April Georgia weather. In that regard the date is an advantage.

In terms of drawing star power, the current date seems to be problematic because many of the world's finest players don't play the week before a major. Who is playing in this year's BellSouth is a less exciting list than who isn't.

There is no Vijay Singh. No Tiger Woods. No Ernie Els. No Sergio Garcia.

Those guys, who rank 1, 2, 3 and 7 in the World Golf Rankings, are players people will come to see. Fans will specifically go to the TPC at Sugarloaf to track any of those golfers.

Although eight of the world's top 20 are in Duluth this week, only three of the top 10 are in a field that has lacked star power, particularly in recent years, because of it's pre-Masters date.

But thanks to one guy, the BellSouth doesn't completely lack for a big name.

Thank heavens for Phil Mickelson.

The only member of the PGA Tour's current "Big Four" playing this week is Mickelson, the reigning Masters champion.

Lefty tees off today in his seventh straight BellSouth, a tournament he played only once prior to 1999. But he's played it every year since tying for seventh in '99, boosting the fan interest in the annual event.

He also doesn't mail it in at the BellSouth. He doesn't coast the week before the Masters. He contends like clockwork at the BellSouth, where he's the tourney's all-time leading money winner with over $1.1 million in

earnings.

The world's No. 4 golfer and the PGA Tour's leading money winner, Mickelson has five top-10 finishes in his last six BellSouth appearances. He won the event in 2000 and was third the next two years.

Chances are Phil will contend again this year and that his galleries will be the biggest (they already were at Wednesday's Gold Circle Pro-Am). Maybe in future years, if the tournament date changes, he might have to share the BellSouth spotlight.

But in this year's tournament, there's clearly one star.

Will Hammock is a sports writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. He can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock

@gwinnettdailypost.com.