Field Set at PGA Tour Season Opener, Complete With an Italian Surprise
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Francesco Molinari will make his first appearance at the Tournament of Champions

The 2011 PGA Tour season kicks off next week at the Tournament of Champions in Maui. Per usual, the field will be missing a few winners, who can’t be bothered to make the grueling trip to the islands. The lone ’10 major winner playing at Kapalua is US Open champion Graeme McDowell. With G-Mac at the resort, who needs the rest, anyway?!

Until recently, British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen was planning to emerge from injury to start the PGA Tour season, but he changed his mind after taking the long flight into consideration. Instead, he will play in the European Tour’s African Open.

No surprise that Masters champion Phil Mickelson sent his regrets. He stopped showing up in 2002. And then there are the Europeans. PGA champion Martin Kaymer is not a PGA Tour member and didn’t want to use one of his limited starts in the US. Same with world’s No. 1 Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, who withdrew his PGA Tour membership after his rookie year.

(That limited starts thing, mostly the policy that applies to Westy and McIlroy should be amended — shouldn’t the PGA Tour encourage the best in the world to play in as many of its events as possible? Sponsors want them at the tourneys they’re funding and fans want to watch them. I guess that would make too much sense, though!)

However, there is a last-minute add to spice things up in the field. Francesco Molinari recently surprised tournament officials with his entry, according to the AP. Molinari qualified for the Tournament of Champions with his win at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, which isn’t an official Tour victory unless won by a member. No PGA Tour membership, either, which Molinari wouldn’t have accepted, but there was a nice consolation prize — a free trip to Hawaii!

As the AP points out, Molinari doesn’t need to worry about counting against his minimum starts since he rarely plays in the US, barring the majors and WGC events.

Even with some winners missing from the champions-only season-opener, it’s a fantastic field. And forget Louis, Martin and Phil! We’ve got G-Mac, otherwise known as Mr. Clutch. Oh, and Rocco, AK, Ernie and Arjun (hey, if Tiger can’t qualify, the next best thing is his practice pal!).