Even if the field were stacked and packed more tightly than John Daly’s lunch box, you wouldn’t need Clarence Darrow to make the case that the Charlie’s Maine Open is only the second most prestigious golf tournament of the year in the Pine Tree State.

Right or wrong, prestige these days is predicated upon cash, and wampum flows more freely at the Greater Portland Open. And yes, that name is significant. Perhaps it was a desire to escape the growing shadow that inspired the Maine State Golf Association’s seemingly defiant move of its centerpiece event from bustling Riverside to bucolic Fox Ridge.

But if you wandered outside the clubhouse Tuesday at this still-developing gem on Auburn’s outskirts, hopscotching between the first tee and 18th green, surveying the action while wondering aloud what was missing from this party, money was a minor detail.

The names most notable by their absence were not Benjamin Franklin or Andrew Jackson. Try Geoffrey Sisk, Eric Egloff, Todd Westfall, Rob Oppenheim and Jeff Seavey.

They’re perennial threats to dominate the leader board at the Maine Open. They’re the best players you’ll see in New England this side of the PGA Deutsche Bank Classic.

Problem is, they aren’t here. They were busy Tuesday playing the middle round in something called the Sterling Open, one swing of a fairway wood outside Worcester, Mass.

It’s the fifth of a dozen events this summer and autumn on the New England Pro Golf Tour. Because Mother Nature gives that satellite circuit roughly six months to wage its modest itinerary, there are ample bye weeks built into the schedule that should allow those barnstormers a chance to hit the state opens.

Should, that is, but for a lack of foresight or cooperation or something.

“Those guys are competing for a ton of money,” said Windham amateur Shawn Warren, the 2004 Maine Open champion who shot a workmanlike, 1-over 73 Tuesday morning.

Uh huh, there’s the m-word again.

The New England Pro Tour pays posted awards of $108,000 for an average tournament, all the way down to a grand for the guy who finishes 48th.

Today’s Sterling Open champion will cash a check for $16,500, precisely $10K more than Marshall University senior Warren won’t be able to accept if he reclaims the state title.

Sisk, the 1996 Maine Open winner at Point Sebago and a top-30 finisher in the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, leads this summer’s New England money list, having already pocketed $31,769.

Easy to understand why the regional touring players won’t cross the Piscataqua River Bridge before leaving for PGA Tour Q-school this fall.

Still at least nine months away from being able to chase a white ball around lush greenery as a vocation, Warren won’t be ashamed to accept the trophy if he wins. He’ll have to beat 110 of the state’s top amateurs, club professionals and a talented flock of snowbirds to take this thing, not to mention tame a top-notch course that’s playing like Doral from the black tees.

“I look forward to this type of tournament. Maybe the New England Pro Tour guys aren’t here, but that’s OK,” said Warren, who is four shots behind early leaders Rob Corcoran of Melbourne, Fla., and Mike Baker of Glen, N.H.

“Hopefully that means the Maine pros can play well and have a shot to win it. I think the Maine pros would rather play for $6,500 and not have the New England Pro Tour guys here.”

Maybe. But given the static nature of New England golf, with precious few players graduating to their PGA Tour card, a tournament such as the Maine Open should be crawling with former winners.

Again,”should” is the operative word. Warren is one of only four previous champions in the field, and two of those players combined for their three titles before 1982.

The New England Pro Tour conflict isn’t the only schedule quirk keeping potential winners away. Connecticut concludes its open Wednesday, with Ryder Cup veteran Ken Green in the field at his home course in Danbury. Hard to imagine southern New Englanders and New Yorkers detouring north.

Much to their credit, MSGA personnel are taking the high road. Said executive director Nancy DeFrancesco: “We’re fighting some conflicts with other tournaments, but we’re going to work over (next) winter to make sure we avoid those.”

That’s good ownership on her part, but the blame must be shared. We’re dealing with a short season, a limited talent pool and a finite number of fans. While free to pursue its own interests, the New England Pro Tour owes it to the best interests of the regional golf community not to stiff the people on the periphery.

“There are still a lot of good players in the field,” Warren said, almost apologetically.

He’s right. We’re at a great course watching good players. But everyone in the equation deserves better.

From now until Thursday afternoon, Fox Ridge will serve up a mean steak. Minus the sizzle.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His e-mail is [email protected]


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