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The Kemper Insurance Open: Potential First-Timers Gather Round

Potomac, MD - Most people would agree, there aren't many second chances in life. That may be true, but you can't try for a second chance if you've never had a first. I was thinking on this concept while strolling the lush grounds of the TPC Avenel in Potomac Maryland, covering the Kemper Insurance Open. The Kemper's garnered a reputation over the years as a fertile ground for first-time winners, and this year was no exception, with Frank Lickliter earning his first PGA Tour victory by draining a fifteen-foot par putt on the 72nd hole.

Lickliter joins Tom Scherrer from last year and Rich Beem from '99 as PGA Tour winners whose first victory was at the Kemper. Other notables, such as Greg Norman and Fred Couples, also used the Kemper as their first trip to the winner's podium. So it's not just fluke-it's a trend-so much so that 10 of the last 19 Kemper Champions won for their first time on Tour at this event.

As fate would have it, even if Lickliter hadn't sunk the final putt, there still would've been a first-time winner. PGA Tour rookie J.J. Henry was waiting in the wings one stroke behind, also with dreams of hoisting the trophy above his head. Henry was staying warm on the practice range while Lickliter nearly squandered his three-stroke advantage over the final three holes-and even started walking towards the eighteenth in anticipation of a playoff as Lickliter knocked in the improbable last stroke.

Henry shouldn't feel too bad-I probably could handle finishing second if they handed me a check for $378,000 along with a pat on the back and a 'better luck next time, son;'-but I understand how he must've felt. I've lost serious beer skins on the final hole many times, and I can't imagine the feeling's all that different…

Getting back to reality, I find it odd that the Kemper Open, year after year, is such a haven for first time champions. It's almost like a Maiden Race for horses-inevitably, one contestant no longer leaves winless. After all, somebody has to win (even though there were so many rain delays this year, you kind of had to wonder whether the tournament was ever going to end).

The difference being most PGA Tour events have seasoned pros competing (whereas maiden races have NO previous winners)-and this year's field contained the likes of Phil Mickelson, the world's #2 ranked player, as well as two-time US Open Champion (and '95 Kemper winner) Lee Janzen. Mickelson defeated Lickliter in a playoff earlier in the year, so it was by no means certain we'd see another first-timer at this year's Kemper.

But we did, and if you looked up and down the final leader board, there were several other potential Lickliters waiting to snap up victory, should he fail to carry out the deed. Why so many first-timers? I've racked my brain, and come up with a few thoughts:

First, the field. While Mickelson's name shown brightly on everyone's appearance list, this field was more noteworthy for who was not there. The previous week saw many of golf's big names entered in the legendary Colonial Tournament down in Texas, but most of the top world players either saw Memorial Day weekend as a week off, or made the trip over to England to play in the European Tour's Volvo tournament. Last year, Ernie Els played at the Kemper, but that was due to the opening of his first signature golf course-Whiskey Creek-about a half hour drive from TPC Avenel. This year he was in England. Likewise, Vijay Singh took his game over to the Volvo, as did many of the top European Tour players who occasionally play on the PGA Tour.

Second, the calendar. Four times a year, the best players in the game gear their games and schedules towards the majors. Most choose to save their top mental focus for those tournaments, leaving the events in prior weeks for those farther down the leading money lists. Throw in some other 'near' majors, such as the World Golf Events and the Tournament Players' Championship, and the top players' calendars get booked quickly. The Kemper Insurance Open is very much like events such as the Bell South Classic in Atlanta, which just happens to precede The Masters by a week. Mickelson played there, too, but most top players went straight to Augusta to tune-up.

Third, life off the Tiger Tour. Face it, any tournament that Tiger Woods doesn't play in, there's a much better chance that you'll end up with the big money and your name etched by the engraver's tools. The previous two weeks' PGA events were also won by first-timers-Robert Damron at the Byron Nelson Classic, and Sergio Garcia at the Colonial. Sure, Tiger was at the Byron Nelson, but it was his return to tournament play after a month off. Just playing the odds, you'll have a lot better chance pulling your first victory when the world's number one player isn't trying for his twenty-something victory in five years, or if he's a little rusty after being away from tournament conditions.

Finally, the non-winner's mental edge. Being that the Kemper is so first-timer friendly, I think that gives non-winners the mental edge they need to actually pull one off. J.J. Henry played well the previous week at a Buy.com event in Richmond, Virginia, and the fact he was carrying some confidence into an event that's known for first-time winners could've made all the difference. Similarly, Lickliter was one poorly placed driver shot from winning out in San Diego, and was literally in the 'on-deck' circle to win at some point. That little something extra, the form of confidence, may have been the difference at the Kemper.

It's true in most ways that you won't get many second chances-and it's true in all ways that you won't get a second chance without a first. Maybe there's a lesson here-take your best shot at getting that first, breakthrough opportunity, then leave the second chances to fate. That'll no doubt leave the yearly Kemper Insurance Open as a popular target for all those on Tour who haven't taken the trip to the winner's circle-yet.

The Kemper Insurance Open
May 24-28, 2001
TPC Avenel - Potomac, Maryland

2001 Winner: Frank Lickliter, with a score of 268
Winner's Purse: $630,000

Web: www.pgatour.com/tournaments/r024/

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