PGA Tour opener still offers intrigue

Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland hits a shot during a practice round prior to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Plantation course on January 4, 2011 in Kapalua, Hawaii.

Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland hits a shot during a practice round prior to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Plantation course on January 4, 2011 in Kapalua, Hawaii.

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KAPALUA, Hawaii – It is an annual sensation, this trip to Maui. Seemingly too far to go in the days before you leave, it usually takes mere minutes of breathing in tropical air to convince yourself you’d go even further to soak in the ambiance of a place that has few equals.

Of course, there will be those who issue their yearly gripe that the PGA Tour season starts too soon, that the offseason needs to be extended. Not that there isn’t some validity to those points, but perhaps as a sign of my advancing age, the greater part of me says to those charges: Nonsense, bring on the golf, and now.

Like being subjected to a New Year’s Day quiniela of Michigan and Michigan State football was great sports drama (for those keeping score at home, they were outscored by a combined 101-21, on a day when Big 10 teams got whacked four times in four tries). Like what we really needed in our winter hibernation were four more weeks of the insufferable Brett Favre. Like Christmas Day is meant to be spent watching wall-to-wall NBA. Like what we want most in our sports world is a nauseating bowl season stretched out to Jan. 10, with something called the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. (Here’s a guess that tens of thousands of good seats are still available.)

Alas, it usually takes all of December and a few days in January to give the wisest sports fans – i.e., those who love and appreciate golf – reason to shake their senses and start craving this grandest of games.

All of which brings us to Kapalua, which besides being a slice of paradise, just might be the most perfect place to launch a new golf season.

“It’s a place you always want to come to,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “Everything is good about this tournament.”

Though the sponsors have changed – what used to be the Mercedes-Benz Championship, then the SBS Championship, is now the Hyundai Tournament of Champions – one thing remains constant with this glitzy opener.

It is the ultimate proof that the previous year was a good one, for being here means you won.

“You’ve done pretty well, if you’re here,” Dustin Johnson said.

Now it is easy for some sour skeptics – probably bitter to be enveloped by snow and cold – to point to the absence of Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen, and suggest it’s proof that you can’t take this opener seriously. But that carelessly overlooks the fact that seven of the top 15 in the world order are here and 19 of the top 40. Certainly, a good many tournaments on both the American and European tours would love for such strength and depth.

Which is not to say that there aren’t aspects to this week’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions that don’t prove we are not exactly in the pressure chamber of a major championship. You could point to the way Ian Poulter and Johnson marched into the media center for pre-tournament interviews – flip-flops being their choice of footwear – as one example. Then there was the intense questioning of Johnson and Ogilvy in regards to surfing.

That’s right, surfing.

Not exactly a storyline you’ll get at Augusta National, but hey, Ogilvy is Aussie through and through and, as we like to say, he “gets it.” So there he was, being damn terrific when asked if there were similarities to golf and surfing.

“It’s adjusting to the environment and every day is different,” Ogilvy said. “There’s extreme differences between warm water and cold water, like bent grass and Bermuda (grass).”

As for Johnson, he confirmed he’s looking forward to catching up with world-class surfer Kelly Slater here – “I think we are going to trade golf lessons for surfing lessons,” he said – but there’s no need to follow it up with a story.

“I can’t surf worth a darn,” Johnson said.

Minutia at its finest, for sure, but it’s something you wouldn’t even stumble upon if we were already into the Florida swing or the summer stretch of majors. But here where majestic views of Lanai and Molakai against a brilliant Pacific backdrop spoil you silly, such storylines are not only welcomed, they are almost expected to be part of the theater.

“A great place to start the year,” Steve Stricker, who would know, given that he’s here for the fifth time.

Then again, Graeme McDowell is not only a rookie in this tournament, he’s in his first visit to Hawaii, yet he knows what Stricker knows.

“A great place to come, to play four rounds, play some golf with the wind here, and really get some positive energy going for the year.”

Pretty much the definition of a perfect season-opener, wouldn’t you say? McDowell apparently thinks so, though he had some fun with a reporter who asked if Hawaii had much in common with his native Northern Ireland.

“It’s green, very green,” McDowell said, with a laugh. “And they serve beer in the bars. Those are probably the only similarities, really.”

Then he stopped, thought for a moment, and added, “and there’s a lot of ocean around.”


Hyundai Tournament of Champions

Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index

  1. Steve Stricker

  2. Matt Kuchar

  3. Graeme McDowell

  4. Jim Furyk

  5. Francesco Molinari

  6. Dustin Johnson

  7. Ernie Els

  8. Camilo Villegas

  9. Ben Crane

  10. Zach Johnson

  11. Tim Clark

  12. Justin Rose

  13. Adam Scott

  14. Jason Day

  15. Ian Poulter

  16. Heath Slocum

  17. Geoff Ogilvy

  18. Bubba Watson

  19. Hunter Mahan

  20. Bill Haas

  21. Charley Hoffman

  22. Carl Pettersson

  23. Anthony Kim

  24. Jonathan Byrd

  25. Jason Bohn

  26. Arjun Atwal

  27. Stuart Appleby

  28. Ryan Palmer

  29. Robert Garrigus

  30. Rocco Mediate

  31. Derek Lamely

  32. Matt Bettencourt

  33. Bill Lunde

  34. Cameron Beckman

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