KAPALUA, Hawaii – The 28 players at Kapalua matches the record for the smallest field at the season-opening SBS Championship since it moved to Maui in 1999.
That’s been a topic of debate for several years.
It started when Tiger Woods stopped coming to the season opener in 2006, citing a need to spend time with his ailing father. Phil Mickelson, who never has been a fan of the Plantation Course, stopped playing in 2002. Among other things, he mentioned that the wind messed up his swing early in the year.
The field looked even less appealing the years Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia failed to qualify by winning a PGA Tour event. That led to talk about a couple of options. One was to give PGA Tour winners a two-year exemption to Kapalua, just as winners get a two-year exemption on tour. The other was to invite all past champions of the SBS Championship.
The latter would mean Els, Garcia, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk and David Duval would be eligible for Kapalua this week. Along with a few others, such as Stuart Appleby and Daniel Chopra, the field would have 35 players this year (assuming Garcia showed up – he didn’t last year), and growing as the years went on.
The two-year exemption might double the size of the field, considering only nine players (including Woods and Mickelson) won tournaments in consecutive years. Considering a tough economic time, that would mean the tournament would have to pay for twice as many rooms at the Ritz-Carlton, along with arranging more courtesy cars and other perks.
Players are treated better at Kapalua than any other PGA Tour event.
To include past champions would diminish the elite feeling of a tournament in which there is only one way to qualify. Players talk all the time about winning not meaning as much as it once did, especially with so much emphasis on the world ranking and how volatile the FedEx Cup playoffs can be. This year, someone could have captured the FedEx Cup without ever winning a tournament.
“I think it’s great the way it is,” Steve Stricker said. “It’s one of the very first things I think about when I win the tournament, is that you get to start the year here. Not everybody feels that way. I think if you start including other categories … that diminishes the value of winning. It gives a guy a little bonus for winning and gets him started in the right direction for the new year.”
The field this year includes all four major champions, along with Stricker, Geoff Ogilvy, Kenny Perry, Zach Johnson and Sean O’Hair. It doesn’t have Woods and Mickelson, who prefer to start their seasons later. They move the needle more than any other players. Is having a few extra champions, such as Els and Singh, going to make that much difference?
Making the field too big also could mean two-tee starts in threesomes, which is never ideal. Players essentially have the golf course to themselves when they want to practice with so few other players.
Yes, they get a head start on the year with $5.1 million up for grabs and FedEx Cup points. They earned it. They won.
“I like the winners only from the previous year,” Ogilvy said. “It’s a rare year when you don’t have Els and Garcia. It’s a really good perk for guys who win tournaments. It’s always been this way. I think it’s pretty good. It’s like the Tour Championship is top 30 (on the money list). If someone drops out, No. 31 doesn’t get in. I think there’s something nice about that.”
HAWAII SWING: Of the 28 players in the SBS Championship on Maui, all but eight of them are going over to Oahu for the Sony Open next week, the first full-field tournament of the season.
Those headed home: Paul Casey, Geoff Ogilvy, Kenny Perry, Nick Watney, Heath Slocum, Michael Bradley, Ryan Moore and Martin Laird. Casey is the defending champion the following week at Abu Dhabi, which essentially is halfway around the world. Ogilvy also is playing in that European Tour event.
Perry, who also has Middle East plans, is skipping Sony after doing some homework.
“I’ve played in 20 times and my best is like 32nd,” Perry said with a laugh.
Not quite, but he was close. Since his rookie season in 1987, Perry has played 14 times at Waialae and his best result was a tie for 16th in 1998. He was 16-under par and finished 12 shots behind John Huston.
Among veterans who are coming over to Honolulu for one week are Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, David Toms, Davis Love III, Justin Rose and Luke Donald.
ADVANTAGE, KUCHAR: Matt Kuchar won two trophies last year, one a little more meaningful than the other, both impressive.
Kuchar won the Turning Stone Resort Championship for his second career victory, a beautiful silver trophy topped by a tree. He also has a silver ball, even though it was a consolation prize.
And it was in tennis.
Kuchar’s wife, Sybi, played tennis at Georgia Tech and they married long after they left college. Kuchar played tennis as a kid until he devoted himself to golf, although he still has some game.
The couple decided in October to play in the U.S. Tennis Association’s National Husband-Wife Championship on clay courts in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., winning the consolation draw.
“We lost in the first round to the eventual champions, went to the consolation bracket and won the next four matches,” he said.
His wife left Georgia Tech and taught tennis in California, and after they began dating, they started playing more.
“I thought it was fun for the two of us,” Kuchar said. “And we’ve had a great time. It’s kind of a fun activity the two of us can play at equal level. She’s a better player when we play matches. I’m kind of scrappy enough in playing a style I don’t think many people enjoy. I just cover the net with every opportunity. She wears me out with baseline rallies.”
Kuchar also played in the nationals on grass at Newport, R.I., and his brother-in-law talked him into playing the open doubles division.
“I told him I don’t belong there,” he said. “We got a good draw. Her brother is an incredible player and we lost in the finals.”