At the 2009 Mercedes Championship, it was time to look on the sunny side

Tuesday January 13th, 2009
Players praised the scenic Plantation course at Kapalua. "It's simply a fun, fun course," said Zach Johnson.
Robert Beck/SI

Has the PGA Tour ever needed Hawaii as much as it did last week, for the lid-lifting Mercedes-Benz Championship? The latter half of the 2008 season seemed to be played under a dark cloud — no Tiger, a dud of a FedEx Cup, John Daly's naughtiness and the economic turmoil leading to widespread industry jitters being the dominant stories in a gloomy fall and early winter. But all of that was forgotten, at least temporarily, at the (mostly) sun-splashed Mercedes, which rang in the new year with its intoxicating mix of roller-coaster golf, mellow golfers and endless Maui scenery, all of it playing out live in prime time for snowbound golf fans on the mainland.

The Mercedes formula is so irresistible that its charms transcend the makeup of the field in any given year. No Tiger and no Phil? No problem. This Mercedes crowned a world-class winner in Geoff Ogilvy and showed off the two most-talked-about players in the game at this moment, Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas, who each bashed their way around the Plantation course at Kapalua for the first time in a blockbuster Thursday pairing and then made spirited runs up the leader board on the weekend. These young guns were two of the 12 first-timers in the field of 33, while only six players were back from last year, leading to a contagious gee-whiz enthusiasm.

"You can be grinding on the course, facing a difficult shot, and then you see a whale spout in the distance, and it changes your focus a little bit," said Stewart Cink, returning to the Mercedes for the first time since 2005. "That doesn't happen in too many places."

The host venue is as much a star as any of the players, a course that demands more geometry and creativity than any track this side of the linksland and makes for outrageously entertaining viewing. Describing his bogeyless first-round 67, which staked him to a one-stroke lead, Ogilvy cited a series of varied iron shots: "Dinky ones into the wind and smashes downwind." Villegas said of the course, "It's crazy and funky; lots of up and down and side to side; lots of wind and grain." Lest there be any misunderstanding, Villegas continued, "I'm loving it." Mercedes rookie Ryuji Imada was another who was duly inspired, breaking off seven birdies in a row during his first official round on the course to fall one short of the alltime PGA Tour record.

During the third round Villegas shook off a 1st-hole double bogey with a run of six straight birdies, but he wasn't even the hottest player on the course. That was Zach Johnson, who made nine birdies against no bogeys for a nine-under 64 that was the low round of the week. "It's simply a fun, fun course," said Johnson. The Mercedes has such an inviting ambiance that last week Rory Sabbatini was on the property even though he wasn't in the field. Just as Billy Andrade has done in the past, Sabbatini brought his family on vacation to enjoy all the coddling and extracurricular activities that are built into the week. At any other tournament Villegas is a model of discipline and routine, but for his first journey to Maui he invited four high school buddies and their girlfriends. The night before the first round Villegas hosted a birthday bash, celebrating his 27th, and then on Thursday evening he whooped it up as his alma mater, Florida, won the BCS championship game. (Kim, who spent two years at Oklahoma and donned an OU hat during the round, typically talked a lot of trash in advance of the game but was mute during the Sooners' disastrous fourth quarter.) Yet none of the above was the highlight of the long week in paradise.

"One of my friends proposed to his girlfriend," says Villegas. "She said yes, thankfully." With a nod to his entourage Villegas said, "I have two jobs here: playing golf and taking care of them." He didn't do the former so well during a first-round 74 that included a ghastly 37 putts, but he fought his way to a 12th-place finish. (Kim tied for second.)

Mercedes's sponsorship contract is up after next year, and in a pretournament press conference PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was noncommittal about the tournament's future. Said Justin Leonard, "If your goal is to try to get one or two players, you either move back to San Diego" — Mickelson's hometown — "or to Orlando" — where Woods resides — "but I'm still not sure you're going to get either one." So why bother, is what we say. Cink spoke for all who did show up: "We all love it here. It would be a shame if this tournament were anywhere else. But ultimately it will be a business decision."

Yes, even all those breathtaking views of Maui and the Pacific can't totally obscure the big picture. Still, last week was a needed reminder that things could be worse, with the players enjoying gleaming Mercedes courtesy cars and a $5.6 million purse. Ogilvy took home $1.12 million, and even Marc Turnesa earned $54,000 for finishing dead last, 25 strokes back. "Most of the guys out here feel fortunate that we are playing golf and not working in a bank," says Ogilvy. "I'm sure everybody has lost money in the market, and all this time they have been sitting there watching it dwindle. So everybody is happy to come back to work and start making money and have [their fortunes] go up instead of down again."

Yet the Mercedes is an investment in something larger. Just as the Masters will always herald spring, starting the season in Hawaii, on this course, is a chance to remind golfers why they love the game in the first place — sunshine and blue sky (well, at least until Sunday's high clouds), green grass and the chance to reinvent yourself a shot at a time. One player who particularly needed the Mercedes's rejuvenating powers was Ernie Els, 39, the future Hall of Famer who was returning to the Mercedes for the first time in four years following a run of poor play that had him questioning his considerable talents and often fostered a grumpiness that belied his Big Easy nickname. Els, who tied for sixth, missed a handful of short putts during a secondround 69 but never stopped smiling. Afterward he repaired to the practice green, which is perched on one of the highest points on the property. Els was grinding hard to groove his stroke but occasionally stopped to watch the sun set over the ocean.

The following evening, after a sloppy third round, he was back in the same spot enjoying the same view. Els, like plenty of others, understands that if you can't find inspiration here, you can't find it anywhere.

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