TOC features plenty who choose to play in paradise

Steve Stricker at the 2011 Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Kapalua.

Steve Stricker at the 2011 Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Kapalua.

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KAPALUA, Hawaii -- As Januarys go, beginning one on the scenic island of Maui sure beats scraping ice off the dogsled in Nome, Alaska. The winners-only Hyundai Tournament of Champions kicks off a new season for 30 players beginning Friday, the first stop in a 40-tournament PGA Tour campaign that winds through the better part of nine months. (In a new twist, the ensuing 2014 season actually will start only three weeks later, in October.)

Paradise, apparently, isn’t for everyone, though that’s not a new storyline here. Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els are among the qualifiers who passed the toughest assignment to get here – winning a Tour event – but bypassed attending the season-opener. (McIlroy and Woods will get their 2013 seasons started later this month in Abu Dhabi, on the European Tour.) But hey, that’s life on the PGA Tour in 2013. With a golf schedule stretching from the first week of January all the way into November, few non-major and non-WGC events can count on luring all the big names.

Instead, the Hyundai ToC is about those who do show up. Most who are asked about their missing peers give the same shrug-of-the-shoulders reaction when queried; they peer down that lush green first fairway, see the majestic white-cap waves crashing against the rocks in lovely Kapalua Bay and scratch their heads.

“You know what? I got off the plane from San Diego, checked into the Ritz-Carlton on Saturday and it really hit me – this is the tournament of champions,” said Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey, who joined the exclusive Tour winners club with a sizzling final-round 60 to win the McGladrey Classic in October. “I know that it’s got a lot of meaning to me. I mean, you look around this place, and you see the beauty here. ... It’s so beautiful, I can’t even put it into words.

“How does someone not come here?”

Eleven of the top 20 finishers from last season’s FedEx Cup standings are at Kapalua, including FedEx Cup champion Brandt Snedeker and major winners Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson. Steve Stricker is here to defend the title that he won last January, one that quickly secured his return trip to Maui. He’ll play a scaled-back schedule in 2013, but wouldn’t miss this one.

There’s always excitement swirling among the first-timers who arrive to the Tournament of Champions, and nine first-timers are in the field this week. Rickie Fowler and Jason Dufner may have played in a Ryder Cup, but never the Tournament of Champions.

Floridian Ted Potter Jr., another first-timer, endured a busy stretch after winning the Greenbrier Classic in early July. The victory suddenly thrust him into the Open Championship at Royal Lytham, delivered his first WGC start (Bridgestone Invitational) and got him through two playoff events. It was a lot of extra golf he hadn’t counted on playing after what had been a pretty pedestrian season.

By autumn, Potter said he felt pretty burned out; he certainly could have used a few more weeks in what was a pretty short offseason. In his downtime, Potter says he likes to turn off the cell phone and escape to Alabama to hunt deer. January just happens to be a great month to bag a white-tailed buck. But as he stood behind the first tee at Kapalua’s Plantation Course basking in the Hawaiian sunshine, he harbored few regrets to be where he is.

“It’s definitely a treat to be here,” he said. “Last year, I started the year at Sony (at Waialae, on Oahu, the first full-field event of the season) and played pretty well and that was nice, but this is really special.”

He’ll start a new season hoping to be far more consistent than he was a year ago, when he won nearly $1.4 million but did not collect a single top 10 outside of his playoff victory at the Greenbrier.

“Something was different about that week,” he said. “I was relaxed all week long, and didn’t really worry about anything but my golf. Hopefully I can play a lot more consistently this year. I need to get settled down a bit, and get more comfortable out here. It took me a while to get comfortable on the Nationwide Tour, too, and then I got more relaxed and started playing better. It’s just different out here. You’re playing in front of big galleries, and your emotions change.”

Potter said that he did learn at least one valuable lesson in his victory.

“I learned that it takes one good week to keep your career going out here,” he said with a wry smile.

Three days before the first official tee shot is struck, he and 29 others are hoping for one of those “good weeks” at Kapalua. For many, just being here is a real good start.

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