The Mercedes Championship fills the downtime between whale-watching and zip-lining, and kicks off the 2009 PGA Tour season

KAPALUA, Hawaii — The 33 players who will start the Mercedes Championship on Thursday have banked the cash, juiced their endorsements and squirreled away World Ranking points for winning in 2008. This week, though, is the capper, the little umbrella in the intoxicating cocktail of success.

There's no 36-hole cut in the land of sugar cane and pineapples, and last place pays around $70,000. (First is worth $1.12 million and a Mercedes-Benz SL550.) No one in the field is worried about keeping his card this year, since a win comes with a two-year exemption, and a Mercedes title can't make or break a career.

And so players bring family and extended family, the better to take advantage of Kapalua's extracurricular activities, which include a Steve Winwood concert at the Kapalua Ritz-Carlton on Friday night.

"I've got a good group here this week," said Camilo Villegas, who won the last two events of the FedEx Cup last fall. "Friends from high school and their girlfriends-there are 10 of us. I've got two jobs: playing golf and taking care of them. The second one is harder."

Not that he minds. Complaining about the gilded Mercedes Championship is like finding fault with a rainbow. Even Vijay Singh was smiling and signing autographs Tuesday. J.B. Holmes planned to go whale-watching. Anthony Kim planned to go snorkeling and whale-watching. Steve Lowery rode Kapalua's new zip line the other day.

Here's another indicator that the Mercedes is more PLT (Pro Leisure Tour) than PGA: So as not to become fatigued during practice rounds, caddies get to drive themselves, the boss and the boss's big, hefty bag up and down the hills of this 7,400-yard course in golf carts.

"We get to Thursday and all of a sudden we're walking up these huge hills, having done nothing all week," one pro bag-carrier told me. He was smiling at the absurdity of it, well aware that no one is about to start a telethon.

Yes, while the rest of America shovels snow and contemplates the semantics of "recession" and "depression," golf sails along in its usual sun-dappled parallel universe. Journalists love to try to connect the dots and "localize national news," so Geoff Ogilvy was asked if his endorsement portfolio was the same this year.

"Yeah," he said, before transitioning to the particulars of his new Cobra driver, which he'll have in the bag for the first time this week. Sigh.

Adam Scott said sponsors might "want a little more for their money" given the current economic climate. But he admitted the creaky wheels of commerce had not affected him personally. And why would they?

Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has probably had to work harder to secure title sponsors for the 2009 slate of tournaments, and he is very publicly asking players to take fewer weeks off.

But Ogilvy wondered how many of those players would add events. Veterans know where they like to play and when, and few willingly step outside their comfort zones. They live in a bubble, in other words. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

In the real world, people worry about global warming. In Tour World, Viking Classic champion Will MacKenzie and Legends Reno-Tahoe Open winner Parker McLachlin tried on free Oakley sunglasses off the first tee Tuesday.

In the real world, people can't stop talking about the $50 billion fallen house of cards that is Bernie Madoff. In Tour World, the subject of conversation is the $50 billion house (from the looks of it) under construction behind the Plantation Course's ninth green.

In the real world, what to do about Detroit's "big three" automakers presents an epic hairball. In Tour World, 2008 Mercedes champ Daniel Chopra is apparently going without his usual blonde highlights this week.

Oh, there's some serious stuff going on.

Johnson Wagner and his wife Katie are due to have their first child in April, so he's gearing up for what will most likely be a busy playing schedule for the next three months.

McLachlin aims to improve his ranking to get into the WGC-Accenture Match Play, and he's not in the Masters yet, either, since a W at one of the so-called "opposite field" events does not come with an invitation to Augusta.

Scott dislocated his kneecap last month, a common injury for him but one that turned out to be more serious than he first thought. He missed the Australian PGA and Australian Open and has had to give up tennis, skiing and, in the unkindest cut of all this week, surfing.

"It hasn't been too painful so far," Scott said when asked if he's been looking longingly at the swells. But, he added, some tasty waves were meant to roll in Wednesday.

"It will be a shame," he said with a wry smile, aware, perhaps, that we should all have it so bad.

 

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