- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

It’s Tuesday at TPC at Avenel, and PGA Tour player Chris Riley and his wife, Michelle, have just returned from a morning stroll around the White House.

“It was really cool,” Michelle says as several dozen players and their families file off the shuttle buses behind them. “We got to see the Green Room and the Red Room, of course. But the best part was that we were shown around by Doro [Bush Koch], the president’s sister. How do you like that for a tour guide? It was a really special experience.”

Welcome to today’s PGA Tour, where oft-outrageous player perks have become par for the course.

Thanks to the rapid growth of PGA purses and the introduction of the World Golf Championships (1999), today’s top golfers have more money and less time for the tour’s second-tier events. That means tournament directors like the Booz Allen Classic’s Scott Abell must go to greater lengths than ever to attract high-caliber fields.

“It’s no secret that we’re competing with other events for players that have somewhat limited schedules,” Abell says. “Sometimes the opportunities you offer to a player and his family can influence that schedule.”

And if you want to prosper, you better impress.

At the HP Classic of New Orleans, famed cajun chef Paul Prudhomme grills fresh fish for players on the driving range, while Emeril Lagasse imparts culinary wisdom to their wives offsite.

At the inaugural Wachovia Championship last month, players’ wives were helicoptered to a tea at the Biltmore, the grand Vanderbilt estate near Asheville, N.C.

There’s a flight simulator in Memphis, bulldozer-driving at the John Deere Classic, NASCAR test drives at Doral, fishing excursions nearly everywhere and even skydiving at a recent Nationwide Tour stop in Monterrey, Calif. The vast majority of tournament perk money, however, is spent on wives and children.

“Most of it is geared toward us because I think they realize if we’re happy, our husbands are happy,” says Shona Pappas, wife of tour player Deane Pappas. “I remember we had 18 holes of shopping at the Las Vegas Invitational one year. We had one hour to visit 18 stores in teams of four, and they gave out prizes afterward. I just remember one of the pro-am wives bought a $10,000 necklace. That was wild.”

Not as wild some of the player requests fielded by Abell and others over the years. Five years ago at the Holden Cup, Greg Norman’s event in Australia, one high-profile competitor requested female companionship — in duplicate.

That makes a mockery of Van Halen’s brown M&M; fetish.

“The most interesting request we ever had was one player suggested he would be more apt to play here if we built a players-only access road,” Abell says, not able to suppress a smile.

The vast majority of the players and their families, however, are more appreciative than demanding.

“We are indulged everywhere we go, and that’s by far the best part of being on the road,” said Phillipa Van der Walt, wife of South African player Tjaart Van der Walt. “This week has been exceptional. The White House tour was one of the highlights of my life. And [Tuesday] night, we had a suite at the ballpark to see the Orioles and New York Yankees. They’ve just been incredible to us here.”

The woman responsible for this week’s impressive itinerary is Karen Bybee, Booz Allen’s director of volunteer and player relations. Bybee set up a schedule that not only included the White House tour and Orioles outing but a trolley tour of Washington featuring the World War II Memorial (yesterday) and a shopping and spa day in Georgetown (today).

“Because the event fell later on the calendar this year and kids are out of school, we focused on the wives and children,” Bybee says. “Our goal was to make the wives as comfortable as possible while they support their husbands and to pick things for the children that were fun and could be educational.”

Although the PGA Tour has a staple group of day care attendants who travel from site to site to provide continuity for children, Bybee did select this week’s events for the approximately 50 youngsters scheduled to attend day care. There’s a fire safety day, featuring a visit from a fire truck, Sparky the fire dog and members of a Montgomery County search and rescue team. There’s an omnipresent moonbounce rental. And there’s a day dedicated to Reptiles Alive, a traveling circus of slithering things.

“They’ve got snakes, iguanas, lizards, turtles. If it’s got scales, they’re bringing it for the kids to see,” Abell says. “Karen has done a great job putting it all together.”

And virtually every player on the property is aware of just how much easier she and her ilk make life on the road.

“We get spoiled every single week out here,” 25-year tour vet John Cook says. “I remember the days when you rented your own car, paid for range balls and got 50 percent-off scrip for the clubhouse. I’m thankful every day for how far the tour has come in the last 20 years.”

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