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AT&T hoping more sun draws bigger names

DULUTH - The Sunday sunshine turned The AT&T Classic into paradise for golfers and fans alike. But will it be enough to attract Tiger, Phil, Vijay and more of professional golf's big names to the TPC at Sugarloaf in 2008?

Early returns for the tournament's new mid-May date are strong enough to make organizers and some players optimistic. Idyllic weather all week made fairways more difficult to hit since drives rolled further, but these were far better playing conditions compared to previous years when the event was held in early April and wet weather widened fairways and made them too soft.

New AT&T Classic champion Zach Johnson and Sugarloaf resident Stewart Cink agree the tournament's new date and warmer weather have changed the quality of the golf course into a world-class venue.

"Arguably the best course conditions we've played all year and maybe for the remainder," said Johnson, who defeated Ryuji Imada in a Sunday playoff for his second title at Sugarloaf. "I mean, the greens were at a great speed, which I like."

Cink called it "the best conditioned course on the whole tour, right up there with

Augusta."

This year's field did include other top-ranking professionals, such as Henrik Stenson, Rory Sabbatini and David Toms. Sabbatini and Toms say they will return to play next year.

"I like the date for this golf course, and I will definitely come back," said Toms, currently ranked 38th in the world, though he was 11th in 2006.

Sabbatini, ranked 14th, said he plays the AT&T Classic because of the number of personal friends in the area. "I'll be here (in 2008)," he said, while signing autographs for fans immediately after completing his final round.

Stenson, the No. 13 player in the world, could not commit for next year's tournament, saying his decision to play on the U.S. and European tours makes it hard to predict his schedule. But he pointed out that he has played at Sugarloaf during the past two years.

Ironically, while former University of Georgia player Imada and other little-known players grabbed the spotlight, several well-known players who could have raised the event's visibility went home early after failing to make the cut. This group included Augusta's Charles Howell III, who entered the AT&T fourth in FedEx Cup points, Chris DiMarco and Kenny Perry. And fan favorite John Daly withdrew after Thursday's opening round due to an injury.

Still, a number of stiff challenges remain for the tournament to attract more of the world's top-ranked players. While praising the quality of the golf course, even Johnson could not commit to returning to the event next year to defend his title.

"I hope so, but we'll see," said Johnson in a press conference after the event.

Possibly the biggest challenge the tournament faces is competing for the players' commitment compared to other tournaments played in May and early June. The AT&T Classic is preceded by the Wachovia and Players Championships, and it is followed by the Colonial and Memorial tournaments. All four of those tournaments are considered major draws by the players. In addition, the European Tour kicked off this past weekend with The Irish Open, pulling players such as Padraig Harrington away from the AT&T.

Finally, the trade-off of better weather instead of a tune-up for the Masters will cause some players to pass it by. Phil Mickelson, winner of the tournament in 2005 and 2006 and the event's single largest draw in the past, did not play this year.

The AT&T is scheduled to be played in mid-May through 2010. For the next three years, AT&T tournament director Dave Kaplan is pinning his plans for an improved field on having the TPC at Sugarloaf course in near-perfect condition.

"The only things you can do are put on a good tournament and have a course in good shape," he said.

"The differentiator is the golf course, and it is getting rave reviews."

Kaplan, the tournament's director for the past 25 years, has worked hard to convince top PGA pros to give Sugarloaf's new date a whirl.

During the months leading up to the event, he visits with them at other PGA tournaments to discuss the value of playing here. Earlier this year, he traveled to the PGA tournaments in Tucson, Ariz., Miami and Hilton Head, S.C., and said he'll consider visiting the Nationwide Tour to encourage their top players to participate.

Kaplan cites decisions by Camilo Villegas and Shaun Micheel to play in this year's AT&T as examples of solid PGA players strengthening the tournament's field.

And, while losing Mickelson this year hurt the tournament's prestige, Kaplan is hoping for Lefty's possible return next year, citing Mickelson's desire to instead play in the EDS Byron Nelson Championship in late April to honor the deceased golfing legend.

With the new date, Kaplan says 2007 was a "test year" for the players. He's now hoping word of mouth from those players that made the trek to Gwinnett will make others reconsider Sugarloaf when they plan their schedules next year.