Aloha, 2011

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.

Hyundai Tournament of Champions

Jan. 6-9

Course: Kapalua Resort, The Plantation Course (7,411 yards, par 73), Kapalua, Hawaii.

Purse: $5.6 million. Winner's share: $1.12 million.

Last year: Australia's Geoff Ogilvy successfully defended his title in the winners-only, season-opening event, closing with a 6-under 67 for a one-shot victory over South Africa's Rory Sabbatini.

UPDATE: Ogilvy withdrawals Kapalua after cut finger

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 that 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 quinella 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 Ten teams got whacked four times in four tries). Like what we really needed in our winter hibernation was 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,” said 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 field

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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