Leading into the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, there’s been more talk about who’s not in the field rather than who is. Which has led to concern and chatter about changing things up or even moving the tournament to a different locale. Look, a few tweaks wouldn’t hurt — like making it so that winners are granted invites for two years instead of just the previous season. But I’m pretty sure moving the event away from Kapalua to a more “convenient” location on the U.S. mainland isn’t going to make a difference in who shows up and who doesn’t.
“I don’t know if it would help it,” said Bill Haas during his presser at Kapalua on Thursday. “How cool is it that you are here? Would you want to go to Houston and play right now, or wherever?”
The answer is “no.” Especially since most of the no-shows are European and traveling long ways is just another week for them.
Just look at the field list — the only American no-shows are Phil Mickelson, who hasn’t played here since 2001 because he doesn’t like the wind and super grainy greens (he’s actually playing in Gary McCord’s event in Scottsdale this week). Then there’s Brandt Snedeker and Dustin Johnson, who are both recovering from injuries so they get a pass. Lucas Glover is here, but questionable after spraining his MCL (knee) while paddle-boarding last week. Meanwhile, Fredrik Jacobson is also on the mend. Justin Rose’s wife had a baby a few days ago. .
Who is here? The more well-known names include Steve Stricker, PGA champion Keegan Bradley, WGC winner Nick Watney, Tour Championship/FEC champ Bill Haas, Gary Woodland, David Toms, Bubba Watson and K.J. Choi. The young 2011 Tour winners, like Scott Stallings, Brendan Steele, Jhonattan Vegas, Chris Kirk and Webb Simpson are surely thrilled to be kicking off their seasons in Maui, where they play some golf in between whale-watching, fishing and cliff-diving and walk away with a guaranteed check — with last-place receiving more than $50,000. Actually, I’d bet all the players feel that way. (Take it from me — how could you NOT love this place and I might be losing money to cover it!)
“I know I would never miss it,” said Haas. “But then again, I’ve won three times in my career and maybe some of those guys have won a lot more than that. For me, this is not a tournament I would want to pass up. Mainly it’s a vacation spot. It’s beautiful here. We have had a lot of fun. I came here for New Year’s and had a little fun prior to this week. I would never miss it…unless I’m injured.”
Here’s why the field this year isn’t perhaps as “strong” as it has been in recent years (not that it has been since Tiger and Phil stopped showing up, anyway): Golf has become a world sport, where there really isn’t much of an off-season. Now, in the winter players are chasing seven-figure appearance fees all over the world. Or they’re European Tour members and their season doesn’t end until the first week of December (at least in 2011). I can’t fault those players for taking a break to spend time with their families and waiting until the events in the Middle East, where they’re also guaranteed a large payday, along with the generous purses. (I mean, if you told me I’d earn seven figures to go cover Abu Dhabi, I’d go and cover the crap out of it.) Contrary to popular belief, golfers actually need a break/off-season, just like the rest of us.
Did anyone really expect Darren Clarke, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Luke Donald and even Rory McIlroy to play this week? Uhh, no, and I can’t blame ‘em. Especially if they’re not PGA Tour members, which Clarke and Kaymer aren’t. In Luke’s case the world No. 1 had an extremely busy year, particularly near the end where he was all over the world playing (he also had to add Disney during his time off to clinch the money title). Plus, his wife had their second child recently.
The only player who caused some raised eyebrows was Adam Scott since he loves coming to Maui to surf and enjoys the event, but he’s playing the part of a dutiful boyfriend and cheering on his tennis star girlfriend Ana Ivanovic in Australia. I really respect that, actually. Too often it’s the woman following around the guy, so it’s nice to see that he’s making sacrifices for her, too. (Plus, have you seen her?? She’s pretty hot.)
It’s unfortunate that the “elite” and three of four major winners aren’t playing this week, but I don’t think it gives rise to make any major shake-ups, like changing venues, or even being upset with them. Look, it’s January. How many people are watching golf? Uh, even diehard golf fans are focused on the NFL. Good news for the tourney is that the ratings should be decent, with Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo agreeing to share the booth, so that’s enough reason to tune in.
I sympathize for the sponsor, who is dishing out $10 million to back the event — Hyundai probably wasn’t thrilled to hear most of the big stars, who would draw a lot more attention to the tournament, decided not to play. Sorry, but unless they start offering seven-figure appearance fees, it’s going to be tough. Which shouldn’t have to be the case. Limited-field event in Hawaii in January with great accommodations and an unmatchable atmosphere — it doesn’t get much better, but the best golf doesn’t revolve just around the PGA Tour anymore.
Good news is there are 28 players in Maui this week, along with a healthy crop of 20-something Americans who sound like they’re lifers for as long as they earn the honor to be here.