Tidbits from Thursday at the 2014 Hyundai Tournament of Champions
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour
The first tee at Kapalua's Plantation Course: Always a beauty!

The first tee at Kapalua’s Plantation Course: Always a beauty!

Welcome to the first tournament of 2014 and my first day of work for the year! It’s a beautiful day here in Kapalua and I’m not annoyed at all that I’m sitting inside a cart-barn-converted media center — not at all! Fine, I know I can’t complain, especially since it seems like it’s snowing in many places on the mainland.

Well, let’s get started into all the insider bytes you need to know. 

*First of all, remember it’s a FRIDAY START and MONDAY FINISH. Tee times begin at 10:30am local time for the first round and they’ll be earlier in the morning to accommodate all the football viewers the following three days.

*Don’t forget: This isn’t the first tournament of the SEASON, rather just the YEAR. The PGA Tour changed to a wraparound season, so we’re currently already six events into the 2013-14 season. How do players feel about it? Well, the top ones don’t seem to really care or feel a difference so far. It still feels like the kick-off to the season.

*The course is softer than in years past and precipitation is forecasted for Friday and Saturday, but nothing crazy (a la last year!). Hopefully the strong winds will quickly dry things up for the last two rounds.

“The weather has been good this week,” said Adam Scott in his pre-tourney presser on Thursday afternoon. “I think I’ve been here since Sunday and we’ve had nice days to practice every day.  However, the course is a lot softer than I remember it.  And maybe we had no rain that year.  But just the fairways are quite soft.

“There’s not a lot of roll and the greens are very soft.  It’s an interesting kind of soft, but they are holding the golf ball very well.  So if the wind gets up, that’s going to help us a little bit.  But it’s not quite as fiery as what I’d like to see it.”

*Defending champion Dustin Johnson withdrew from the pro-am due to a sore neck. He was replaced by Rory Sabbatini who vacations here in Kapalua.

Dustin received treatment this afternoon and he’s scheduled to visit us in the media center at 4pm local time. I’m sure it’s nothing serious… he was my pick to win. He’s coming off a WGC win at the HSBC Champions in November and he knows Kapalua’s Plantation Course very well.

He was one of the first players to arrive on Maui (like he did last year) on December 27th and played four practice rounds, but he missed New Year’s Day and the day after (hangover recovery?!). And yes, of course he’s accompanied by his lovely fiancee Paulina Gretzky.

*UPDATE: Dustin said he slept on his neck funny and tweaked it, then someone called his name and he turned his head to look back, which aggravated it even more.

“It’s better,” said Johnson in his press conference late afternoon on Thursday. “I went and got some strong antiinflammatory and it definitely helped. It was a little better this morning, but this afternoon, it’s gotten a lot better.”

Don’t worry, he says he’ll be ready to go on Friday.

“Just slept on it weird and then tweaked it,” said DJ. “You know, just, I don’t even know, someone called my name and I looked, and it was already  but it’s definitely better. By tomorrow hopefully it will be gone.”

*The only other player who has played more rounds is first-timer Scott Brown, who arrived on December 27th. Dustin, a fellow native of South Carolina, gave him some helpful advice and told him just to play the course as many times as possible to get used to the tough greens. (There’s a reason rookies for this tournament don’t usually play that well on their inaugural trip — it’s a difficult track, especially around the greens.) Well, Brownie has definitely taken that into consideration, so we’ll see if that pays off.

*Reigning Masters champ and GWAA Player of the Year Adam Scott is in town and he’s been enjoying the surf and excited to be back for the tournament.

“A couple times I have qualified and decided not to come and I’ve ended up regretting it because I like coming here so much,” said Scott. “It was nice that I got in here this year and I definitely made room for it in the schedule.”

Scott plays a somewhat limited schedule on the PGA Tour — with only 16 starts in 2013 — to accommodate his worldwide itinerary, which he’s said has been part of the formula to his recent success at the majors. Last year he didn’t qualify for the Hyundai ToC, so he obviously didn’t play here or at next week’s Sony Open on the neighboring island of Oahu. Different story this time around as he’ll make starts in the first two tournaments of 2014.

To make up for the additions, he’s decided to take a six-week break afterwards, which means he’ll skip the Northern Trust Open and the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Scott will play again at the kickoff for the Florida swing at the Honda Classic. He’s not worried about the schedule change impacting his performance at the majors, though.

“I’m just putting one tournament in and taking another one out,” he said. “I didn’t play until L.A. last year, so I got six or seven, probably ten-week break, and I’m getting six this year because I’m playing here.

“So if I can get off to a good start here, I think I’ll be able to enjoy a break and then come back ready for the Florida Swing and be in the best shape possible for the Masters.  That’s kind of what I’m basing the schedule on.”

*20-year-old phenom Jordan Spieth is making his debut at the Hyundai ToC. After starting last season with no status, Spieth won the John Deere Classic — and almost the Wyndham Championship — and qualified for the Tour Championship, along with making the U.S. Presidents Cup team.

There are now quite a few expectations for Spieth, but he’s not worried about a sophomore slump.

“Shoot, I still feel the beginning of the season like a rookie,” said Spieth in his press conference. “I’ve never seen any of these courses yet, at least until we reach about the end of March.  You know, there’s still new tournaments for me, new experiences.  I’m not going to look  I’m not going to count whether it’s my first, second, third, fourth year on Tour.

“It’s another year, it’s another tournament, and I’m focused on the task at hand.  It’s not easy to win out here, and it’s definitely not easy to win against 30 some-odd guys that have won recently.”

Spieth made some tweaks to his swing in the off-season.

“We worked a little on my grip and a little on my load on the backswing to kind of flatten the plane down on my downswing, so I was able to hit more draws now.  Throughout the season, I worked a little more for whatever reason, playing week-in and week-out, I started coming a little more over the top of it and then just playing fades and I wanted to get my natural draw back and so I kind of have both ball flights now instead of being one-sided.”

However, he still doesn’t feel like he quite owns his swing.

“I’m not quite to that stage,” he said. The good news is I’m able to make it work if things aren’t going well.  But we’re back to a really good point right now where if I get a lot of reps in the beginning of the season, the way that I’ve been practicing the past couple months, should be at a good point in my swing.”

*Back to Dustin Johnson, who fired longtime caddie Bobby Brown sometime over the last few months. Dustin’s younger brother, Austin Johnson, caddied for him in Australia and in China, where he won the WGC-HSBC Champions. DJ didn’t give a particular reason…

“Well, I mean, it’s my brother, so we get a long very well,” said DJ. “He’s my best friend.  I like having him out there with me.  He gives me a lot of confidence and he’s still got a lot of stuff to learn about caddying because he hasn’t been doing it for very long.  It actually kind of helps me because then I pay more attention to what I’m doing, instead of just relying on Bobby to do everything.

Now I kind of  I’ll do my numbers and I’ll kind of look where the flag is and make sure everything is correct.  So you know, it kind of slows me down a little bit and makes me actually think about what I’m doing.”

Wait, so why else did Dustin pick his brother over an experienced caddie?

“Because I actually like spending time with my brother,” he said. “I mean, you know, a lot of times, doesn’t matter how much you like somebody, when you’re out there  when you spend as much time as we do together, traveling and on the golf course all day, people get annoying.”

Here, here!

*Harris English made an equipment change over the holidays, switching from PING to Callaway. English is still learning to play with his new sticks, but he’s excited about the acclimation process.

“I’m hitting them good,” said English after his pro-am on Thursday. “I really like the (Callaway clubs). It’s a work in progress for getting away from the PING clubs and switching to some of the Callaway gear. I’ve never really hit forged irons before and they’re really, really good. I like how they go through the turf and I feel like I can hit knockdown shots a little better. So, it’s good, I really like the Callaway (equipment) and I’m really excited about being part of the Callaway team.”

How hard is the adjustment?

“It’s still a work in progress,” he said. “You can’t really switch everything at once. I still have some PING clubs in the bag and I haven’t switched golf balls yet because I want to know it’s right and everything is in place — you have to have some clubs you keep the same. But I have (Callaway) irons in the bag, the driver, wedges. Really the only clubs I’m not playing with (that are Callaway) are the 3-wood, 5-wood and the putter.”

It was tough for him to take out his favorite club in the bag — a PING 5-wood, which he says won him his first PGA Tour event, the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. He’ll also spend most of the West Coast swing getting acclimated to his new Callaway sticks during practice rounds and pro-ams.

Meanwhile, he just arrived to Maui on New Year’s Day because one of his best friends and former teammate at the University of Georgia, Hudson Swafford, got married on New Year’s Eve. (OK, who gets married on NYE?? That sounds awful. To those reading, sorry if you’ve done that to your friends and family, but really…)

Swafford is currently a rookie on the PGA Tour after graduating from the Web.com Tour last season.

*Finally, I spent some time with Boo Weekley on the golf course during his pro-am today. I caught some great candid video of Boo and his caddie Barry Williams talking over numbers and such. This one, by far, is my favorite, and I think you’ll definitely chuckle if you watch it.

Next, Boo hitting his second shot on no. 4:

Finally, here’s his drive on no. 5: