Many stars missing on eve of PGA Tour season

Graeme McDowell during the 2011 season-opener in Kapalua, Hawaii.

KAPALUA, Hawaii – One wouldn’t think with a field so thin you’d expect William Powell to be given the lead role that there would be room for sidebars, but that’s the quandary that is the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Though played out upon the PGA Tour’s most breathtaking stage and saturated in an ambiance that can only be found in paradise, the tournament annually spurs people to focus not on who’s playing, but on who isn’t. For many years, that revolved around two specific names – Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – but as further proof that the game is becoming more global, a bevy of international names have been tossed into that mix for 2012.

Luke Donald. Rory McIlroy. Charl Schwartzel. Martin Kaymer. Adam Scott. Fredrik Jacobson. Darren Clarke. Justin Rose.

They’re not here, either, as an eye-opening 11 players turned down chances to tee it up at a golf course where on your opening tee shot you take in a majestic panoramic view of two other Hawaiian islands, Molokai and Lanai. That the purse (a massive $5.6 million) and top prize (a whopping $1.12 million) aren’t enticing enough is not an indictment of players’ apathy as much as it’s a testament to how grand this game has become from Asia to America, Europe to Australia.

Give your constituents endless opportunities and riches beyond their dreams and something’s got to give. In this case, it’s roughly 28 percent of your guest list (11 of 39) calling in their regrets. It’s a storyline that appears to have dominated the main focus headed into the tournament, though Steve Shannon tried his best to deflect the attention back to his company’s party here at the Plantation Course.

“We invested more over the last year in the execution, in advertising, so given the luxury of time, we’ve really stepped it up,” said Hyundai’s vice-president of marketing. “We’re expecting a great tournament. We’re thrilled with the field.”

Given that six of the world’s top 10 players (Donald, McIlroy, Kaymer, Scott, Dustin Johnson, Schwartzel) and three of last year’s major winners (Schwartzel, McIlroy, Darren Clarke) opted not to play, it appeared hollow for Shannon to talk up veterans who have shown up, like David Toms, Steve Stricker, and K.J. Choi, or that there are fresh, young faces in the lineup. It’s “exciting to see that kind of vitality,” Shannon said.

OK, but it’s not that “vitality” that has commanded the storyline on the eve of the 2012 PGA Tour season and that is unfortunate. It’s also to be expected, given that increasingly world-class players have for a variety of reasons skipped what would be considered high-profile tournaments. What all of this highlights is a truism that sits at the heart of professional golf – it can’t be compared to the team sports and the sooner that is accepted, the easier it is to live with what has happened to the field at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Whereas MLB, the NFL, NBA, and NHL all have clearly defined starts and finishes to their seasons, golf for the diehard fan is pretty much a year-round entity now and for proof, consider that global forces such as Donald, McIlroy, Kaymer, and Schwartzel were involved in a high-stakes tournament just a few weeks ago.

There’s also this concept of All-Star games. The team sports have one each, while golf has a pile of them – four World Golf Championships, and this winners-only affair at Kapalua among them.

Playoffs at the climax to the season? That’s what you get in team sports, but with the PGA Tour, the playoffs take a back seat to four major championships that are held months earlier.

Whereas it’s generally expected that the best players, barring injury, will be involved every time you tune into a game, it’s part of the golf landscape that fans understand that not every marquee name is in attendance and not every big name player will be in contention. Negatives, yes, but arguably as a credit to the passion people have for this game, golf endures, and the overall health of the PGA Tour specifically is better than ever.

Accepting all of that, what sits in front of us here on the first tee high above the magnificent Pacific is a 28-player field that will actually commence with the business of golf come Friday morning. True to Shannon’s words, there are notable veterans such as Stricker, Toms, and Choi; seven ranked within the top 30 in the world; a major winner (Keegan Bradley); and enormous power sources who jack up the interest (Bubba Watson and Gary Woodland), but what has always been the source of flavor at these tournaments is the sprinkling of unheralded winners who finally have earned a large dose of satisfaction.

Bryce Molder, a few weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, is here as a reward for having won that first PGA Tour tournament, and that it took Harrison Frazar, 40, even longer doesn’t diminish the feel-good story line at all. And to prove that golf remains a mystery that can’t be solved, Scott Stallings, Brendan Steele, and Chris Kirk are here after having won in their rookie seasons, while Scott Piercy was seemingly headed off the tour when he posted a stunning win to earn a trip here.

It is this blend of the heralded and unheralded that has always been the focal point to this tournament and whether or not you’ve come to accept the reality of pro golf in 2012 – that there is no offseason – doesn’t alter the fact that the PGA Tour’s latest season is upon us.

For many, that is the only story line that matters.

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