Jan
6
2011
(Belated) Balls in the Air: Hyundai Tournament of Champions
By Stephanie Wei under Balls in the Air

Welcome to Balls in the Air, where I size up my Fantasy Golf picks of the week, featuring guys to watch (or not) and interesting story lines. Disclaimer: Don’t yell at me if my picks suck. There’s no mathematical formula to my attempt at predicting something as random as golf scores.

Dustin Johnson bombs a drive from the 18th ladies tee during the long drive contest on Wednesday

First of all, my apologies for the delay of the opening “Balls in the Air” column of the PGA Tour season. I’m such a slacker and I’m sure you were all panicking when it didn’t pop up on Wednesday. Due to various assignments I have with SI this week, I’m a little behind, so I hope you’ll forgive me. This will be an abbreviated version since the guys have teed off already, anyway.

As you know, Geoff Ogilvy withdrew due to a finger injury, which may have screwed up some of your fantasy line-ups, so hopefully you got the memo yesterday. I know that I was going to pick him. How do you not pick the two-time defending champion? Plus, he’s the epitome of how a professional should act. His humor, wit and eloquence are ridiculously underrated.

Guys that play the long ball will have a big advantage. There are several drivable par-4s if the wind is blowing the right direction. The fairways are rather generous, so most bombers will be pulling out driver off the tee. If the wind is really blowing, I bet Dustin Johnson can drive No. 12 with his 3-wood or 3-iron!

The weather plays a rather significant factor with conditions at The Plantation Course. There was some “pineapple juice” (what the locals call rain) this morning. It’s much colder than it has been the rest of the week. Dare I say it was almost too hot the past few days?  For Kapalua, the wind was fairly tame yesterday. But I’m told the tradewinds are going to start blowing this afternoon.  (Update: there was virtually NO wind on Thursday.) The forecast called for a variable wind (mix of Kona and tradewinds) for Thursday and Friday, while the Kona pattern is expected to come in on Saturday and Sunday.

Okay, without further ado, my picks.

GROUP A

Dustin Johnson: He’s my favorite for the week. Hits the long ball, which means he can drive it close to some par-4s. He’s been focusing on his wedge game in the off-season. He likes the wide open fairways. He’s had success at courses with windy conditions, like Pebble Beach.

GROUP A BENCHER

Ernie Els: He enjoys Kapalua. Every time I’ve seen him this week, he appears to be in great spirits. In six starts here, he has only finished outside of the top 6 once. Remember his epic duel with Tiger in 2000? He ended up losing, but it was a very dramatic finish. Els won the tourney in 2003. He is also coming off a victory at the South Africa Open several weeks ago, so he’s not rusty like some of the other guys.

GROUP B

Stuart Appleby: Only player to win three consecutive times at Kapalua. This is his first time back since 2006, but to my understanding, the course hasn’t changed that much. He’s been playing in Australia all winter, so not so much rust to dust off.

Steve Stricker: He placed T10 last year and second in ’08. He’s steady and usually a safe choice.

GROUP B BENCHERS

Hunter Mahan: Great ballstriker. As long as he knocks it close and doesn’t miss many greens, he’s almost guaranteed to go low. He T5 in ’08. Also, you gotta think he’s in good spirits — he’s getting married next week!

Justin Rose: He’s rusty. He said he hasn’t played in about 12 weeks (the things you learn at the hotel bar). But he’s been working hard with instructor Sean Foley this week.

GROUP C

Jason Day: First time at Kapalua, but he’s a bomber. Hasn’t played since the Tour Championship in October, though. (Whoops, he’s one-over through 9. I did make my picks after a glass of wine or two…blame the alcohol, naturally!)

Ryan Palmer: Because the Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz told me to.

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Now for the fun stuff, I have prizes for the winners in all three leagues this week (or maybe top two or three point finishers, whatever is most fair — feel free to share your thoughts)! Thanks to Gary Planos, I have two SBS Championship flags autographed by Geoff Ogilvy. He says there are a few other goodies, too, like a Joe Torre autographed ball from ’98 and another signed flag from Lee Trevino. Check out the Ogilvy flag:

Alright, so who did you pick for your fantasy golf teams? Who’s your favorite to win?

(Top photo by Eric Risberg/AP)