POTOMAC -- A year ago, Hale Irwin stood by the putting green of the Tournament Players Club at Avenel discussing the merits and demerits of the field for the Kemper Open. All week, Irwin had been hearing and reading about the lack of big-name PGA Tour players who would be playing.
"There might not be a lot of big names," said Irwin, who was among the biggest. "But that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of great players. The average golf fan just doesn'tknow it."
The field for this year's $1 million Kemper Open far surpasses last year's and could even be the best the tournament has had since it moved here from Congressional in 1987. Play is scheduled to start today.
Along with added depth -- six of the top 20 on the money list and 11 of the top 30, compared with three of the top 20 last year -- this field has added some big names, with the celebrated return of Greg Norman and the Avenel debut of former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw.
"He's the marquee player," Ben Brundred Jr., the tournament's general chairman, said yesterday of Norman. "If you had to pick one player who you'd like to see come, you obviously pick Greg Norman."
The loss of Corey Pavin, the tour'sleading money-winner this year, barely was noticed. Pavin withdrew Sunday because of fatigue. Nor is Irwin missed. The U.S. Open champion is home, resting up before defending his title next month and trying to get some help for a sinus condition.
The field, which will include crowd favorites such as Norman and Crenshaw, along with 1987 winner Tom Kite, the tour's all-time money-winner, and Lanny Wadkins, No. 2 behind Pavin this year, gives the Kemper credibility.
Since Norman suggested in 1987 that the par-3 ninth hole be blown up, the Tournament Players Club course had suffered from a severe image problem. As recently as last year, Brundred said, Irwin complained privately that "though he liked the golf course, he said it lookedlike a moonscape."
So Kemper and PGA Tour officials have worked on improving the course and its aesthetics. Three years ago, the ninth hole was remodeled to make it less severe when a tee shot strays from the green. This year, $100,000 worth of trees were put in, a new tee was built on No. 11 and about 30 bunkers were altered.
"The golf course is a pretty good layout," said Norman, who has not won in more than a year. "When I played here last fall, I liked what they had done to No. 9. It was toopenal before. I liked the way they changed No. 12. They obviously made great improvements to the golf course."
Kite said: "You don't know whether the golf course is going to be in good shape until you get there, so that's not as big a factor in getting a good field. This is a great date, two weeks before the Open. More importantly, a lot of adverse reaction to the golf course is beginning to wear off."
Brundred hopes word will spread that Avenel is worth a try. He also hopes that the Kemper will keep its place on the schedule, though next year it will be played three weeks before the Open, as opposed to this year's two weeks before.
But the key for the Kemper is attracting the players, and Brundred said that PGA Tour officials have been instrumental in trying to improve the quality of the field. "The Tour has gone to great lengths to talk to the players and find out what they didn't like about the course and fix it up," Brundred said.
As for attracting crowds, it may come down to the weather and Norman. If the heat wave breaks by the weekend, and if Norman gets into contention, it might mean record attendance for Avenel.
"We're hoping that he [Norman] makes the cut," Brundred said. "Then you'll see some crowds."
Facts and figures
When: Today through Sunday, 72 holes.
Where: Tournament Players Club at Avenel, in Potomac.
Who: 156 of the world's top golfers, including Greg Norman, Ben Crenshaw, Lanny Wadkins, Tom Kite and defending champion Gil Morgan.
Prize money: $1 million, including $180,000 to the winner.
How long: 6,904 yards, par-71 (course record 64).
Tickets: Available at the gate ($20 for a single-day grounds ticket; $30 for a single-day grounds and pavilion ticket).
TV: USA today and tomorrow (4 to 6 p.m.); CBS Saturday, 4-6 p.m., and Sunday, 3:30-6 p.m.
Handicapping the field
Don Markus' odds on this year's Kemper Open:
Player Odds pos. Markus' comment
Tom Kite 3-1 21st Won in 1987, lost in playoff in 1988, has 2 top 10 finishes in the past month and 1 victory this year. This kind of course favors Kite because of his iron play and accuracy.
Ian Baker-Finch 5-1 20th Finished second to Gil Morgan last year. The 30- year-old Australian has won only once but comes in as one of the hottest players on tour, having finished in the top 11 in his past 5 events.
Greg Norman 8-1 69th Norman, who holds the course record, is slowly coming back from a 6-week hiatus. If he gets into the hunt, the crowd would be pulling for him.
Gil Morgan 10-1 45th Defending champion, finished fifth in 1989 but is in a slump. The sight of Avenel could revive him.