Change not all good

DULUTH - Along with a new name, the AT&T Classic may need to redefine its allure in order to regain some of the star power the field has featured in the past.

Plagued for years by weather problems that caused regular delays, the former BellSouth Classic was moved from March to May. It actually still rained on Wednesday during the Pro-Am, but that was only practice and the forecast was looking clear through the weekend.

The major plus to the change is better conditions for the players and fans at the TPC at Sugarloaf in Duluth, where the cut has been made on Friday only twice in the past eight years. The downside, at least for now, is that its spot in the rotation has played a significant role in the caliber of the field.

"Positives are obviously, I don't need to say it, the weather is great and the course is in phenomenal shape," said Stewart Cink, who lives at Sugarloaf and plays out of East Lake. "Negatives, obviously coming after such great events like Wachovia and (The) Players (Championship), it's tough to attract the top players because everybody is looking for a little breather after those two.

"They're grueling events and I wouldn't blame the guys for taking off. It's just unfortunate that we have to be right after those two tournaments."

Phil Mickelson, who won at Sawgrass on Sunday, won't be here to defend his title. Mickelson, the event's only three-time champion, is taking the week off.

Two of Lefty's wins here have come in events shortened to three rounds. Mickelson took home the 2005 title by beating a strong field in 54 holes and followed that up with a second-consecutive victory last year before going on to take home the green jacket at Augusta.

Mickelson favored the AT&T Classic for its previous date a week before the Masters, in part because the two courses play similarly. Cink said he understands why Mickelson would opt not to play the new date.

"This is a great place for me to be because the Tour is never more than an hour and a half flight for me," Cink said. "It's a huge luxury for me to be able to come home on such a short trip to Atlanta and stay here for a few days, recharge and go back out. I feel like I can play 12 tournaments in a row.

"Not everybody is like that. Mickelson lives out on the West Coast. It's a lot harder for him to get back and forth. So I understand. To play four or five tournaments in a row, if you're up at a high level like Mickelson ... that's tough on you."

Mickelson may be missing and Tiger Woods hasn't played the tournament since winning it in 1998, but this year's event does include several prominent players, including Cink and six of the top 25 in the FedEx Cup points standings.

Slated to tee off today for the first round of the AT&T Classic are fourth-ranked Charles Howell III and ninth-ranked Zach Johnson, fresh off a Masters' victory. Prior to his April triumph at Augusta National, Johnson's only PGA Tour win was the 2004 AT&T Classic.

Also looking to cash in on the nearly $1 million winner's paycheck are Boo Weekley (ranked 11th on the points' list), Rory Sabbatini (13th), Henrik Stenson (18th) and Charley Hoffman (24th).

"This is still a good spot because you have a course in very good condition," said Stenson, who is playing his first full season on the PGA Tour. "That's always going to attract players. It's a course that could suit my game as well. I mean, I felt I played a bit better last week and hopefully I can continue to progress this week."

Stenson finished tied for 23rd at The Players Championship last week in Florida, but won the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship in February. The Swede made the AT&T Classic part of a four-week tournament schedule, so the date clearly held benefits for him - despite having not fared particularly well in his only other appearance here. Stenson failed to make the cut last year.

"This is the third week out of a four-week stretch for me and I'm heading back to Europe and playing the PGA Championship at Wentworth next week," Stenson said. "So it worked out really well for me to play this week.

"I'm sort of hungry to do better than I did last year."

Cink, the local favorite, feels like the tournament will have to reinvent itself a little bit with the date change.

"I think in the future, the weather and the course - the word will get out about how nice it is here," he said. "I think the top players will start to return back. But it's a slow process and it's one that I don't blame anybody for not playing.

"But I really almost personally wish that everybody would play, to come see how nice it can be here."

The course got a dousing on Wednesday afternoon with some players still out for the pro-am when rain poured down in two big bursts. But the forecast through Sunday isn't calling for any more precipitation and high temperature are expected in the mid-70s.