News & Opinion

Star power gives Safeway Open a new line

World Golf Championships - Mexico
At No. 6 in the world rankings, American Justin Thomas leads a stacked Safeway Open lineup, but the event’s biggest draws might not even be ranked.

Bill Murray does something here, that is great

Bill Murray will not drag an old lady into a bunker. Nor will television coverage show the picturesque Monterey Peninsula coastline, a staple of the annual AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. But this week’s Safeway Open – also known as Northern California’s other PGA Tour event – is in its relative infancy, trying to carve out a place on the crowded September landscape.

That’s a tricky proposition in the fall, when many sports fans are fixated on football (or the impending Major League Baseball playoffs). Golf quietly slides into the background, still more than six months away from the Masters.

This helps explain why the tournament at Silverado Resort in Napa is trying creative ways to distinguish itself. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo will play on a sponsor exemption this week. So will teen phenom Akshay Bhatia and not-quite-60-year-old Fred Couples (tee times).

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At No. 6 in the world rankings, American Justin Thomas leads a stacked Safeway Open lineup, but the event’s biggest draws might not even be ranked.

Or check out the marquee pairing from Wednesday’s pro-am: Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, golf’s omnipresent ambassador, joined five-time major champion Phil Mickelson. There’s some serious star power.

Even so, the measure of any PGA Tour event is the strength of its field, and on this count the Safeway finally is making a dent. Five of the top 15 players in this week’s Official World Golf Ranking are entered: Justin Thomas (No. 6), Patrick Cantlay (No. 7), Francesco Molinari (No. 9), Bryson DeChambeau (No. 11) and Adam Scott (No. 15).

That might not sound impressive, but it’s an achievement for the third tournament of the wraparound schedule, when most big-name players are still exhaling on their yacht.

Safeway Open officials have a few uncommon wrinkles working in their favor, starting with the venue – right in the heart of wine country. It also doesn’t hurt that Mickelson’s management company, Lagardere Sports, runs the tournament, so Lefty has been an annual participant in recent years.

Some other notable names to consider:

* Johnny Miller: He might have retired as NBC’s oh-so-candid lead analyst, but Miller remains involved in this event. He’s a part owner of Silverado – he lived there during his playing days, after moving from San Francisco – and helped redesign its North Course with an eye toward luring the PGA Tour.

That probably wouldn’t have happened in 2014 without Miller. He still carries clout in golf circles, so his presence can only help.

* Tiger Woods: One day, maybe, Woods will play in this tournament. He’s technically obligated in the wake of a 2012 agreement with the Tour – after Woods and seven other players (including Rory McIlroy) skipped the Frys.com Open, precursor to the Safeway, to play in a lucrative exhibition event in Turkey.

Tour officials mandated the so-called Turkey Eight play in the Frys-turned-Safeway once between 2013 and ’15. The other seven players did, but health troubles bought Woods time. His recent knee surgery delayed his appearance once again.

* Curry: Not only is he playing alongside Mickelson on Wednesday (his third pro-am start at Silverado), Curry still hopes to host a new PGA Tour event at Harding Park in San Francisco. That probably won’t happen until September 2021.

Then it could be paired with the Safeway Open as attractive, back-to-back stops in Northern California. That might entice some top players, possibly even Woods, to show up.

Ron Kroichick covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is a contributing writer to the Northern California Golf Association magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick