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VIEWPOINTS: AT&T offers big opportunity for young upstart

The cover of the AT&T Classic media guide features a photo of Phil Mickelson, the winner of the previous two PGA Tour events at the TPC at Sugarloaf in 2005 and 2006.

It makes sense because this was Mickelson's tournament. With the emphasis on was.

Because the tournament made a date change to May - from its previous pre-Masters spot in late March, early April - Lefty won't be a two-time defending champion in Duluth this week. He elected not to defend, not because he didn't enjoy the course but because the date didn't work into his schedule.

Honestly, the week after The Players Championship and two weeks after the golfers' highly regarded Wachovia Championship isn't too high on many golfers' list. Tiger Woods likely won't play here any time soon and neither will Mickelson or many other top names.

Only five of the top-20 golfers in the FedEx Cup standings are at Sugarloaf this week - No. 4 Charles Howell III, No. 9 Zach Johnson, No. 11 Boo Weekley, No. 13 Rory Sabbatini and No. 18 Henrik Stenson. The guys above are proven players and they very well could take advantage of a Mickelson-less field. In the past every golfer here knew he would have to contend with Mickelson, who has won at Sugarloaf three times since 2000 and finished in the top 10 every year except 2003.

That isn't the case this year.

With the absence of a huge name, the 2007 tourney presents a good opportunity for someone to put his name alongside the AT&T's impressive past winners list, which in the last 10 years includes guys like Mickelson, Woods, Retief Goosen and Johnson, this year's Masters champion.

The champion this time around could come from a top golfer like Howell, an Augusta native, or Johnson, whose only two PGA wins have come in Georgia.

But a Mickelson-free tourney that lacks the top FedEx Cup contenders sets up quite nicely for an upstart, unproven player to have a breakthrough win. It will be plenty tough to win this week, but it's an tremendous opportunity for a golfer outside the money leaders to collect the nearly $1 million first prize.

Personally, I'd like to see something like that happen. It's fun for the fans to cheer for someone chasing his first win and selfishly it makes a good story.

It did three years ago when Johnson won his first PGA tourney at Sugarloaf. The rookie's breakthrough win propelled him to bigger things, like the Masters title and the Ryder Cup.

With a Mickelson-free field, we might see a similar story this week.

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays.