Players get back to work for first full-field event of 2011

Two-time Sony open winner Ernie Els announced the inception of the Els for Autism Golf Challenge.
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HONOLULU — Ryan Palmer aims to become the first defending champion of 2011 not to slice open his index finger and have to WD before the tournament starts at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Taking a page out of Arnold Palmer's playbook, he also will become the first player to wear a microphone for Golf Channel in the opening round (7-10:30 p.m. ET) at Waialae Country Club on Thursday.

"I didn't get to defend the last tournament I won, the [2008] Ginn sur Mer, because they quit havin' it," said Palmer, 34, a three-time Tour winner.

The first full-field tournament of 2011, the Sony is known largely for its relatively flat, old-school (heavy on the doglegs) course, as well as being the place where players start to knock off the rust of winter.

"Not much," said Marc Leishman, the Tour's 2009 Rookie of the Year, when asked what he's been up to. "Just sitting around getting fat."

With inclement weather in the forecast for Wednesday and Thursday, players were out in force to get their work done under sunny skies Tuesday, so much so that the driving range was full by 10:15 a.m.

"I guess we're chipping and putting," John Merrick said to his caddie with a laugh after failing to find a spot. Not for nothing do players call the range here one of the Tour's two worst, along with that of Torrey Pines.

The Sony is also the tournament where you find out who's been growing a beard (D.J. Trahan), who's been eating too much (no comment), and who's changed equipment. (Longtime Titleist guy Davis Love III is with Bridgestone, while Bridgestone guy Charles Howell III is with Mizuno.)

Palmer led wire-to-wire to win the Sony last year, although the result was in doubt until his 52-foot eagle chip rattled the flagstick on 18, leaving him with a tap-in for birdie and the win.

"The chip was going to go by eight, maybe 10 feet," he says. "I would have had to make a putt coming back, but that's what the pin was there for."

His 2010 wasn't all pineapples and macadamia nuts. He made just one cut in a 12-week stretch — "a shot here, a shot there" — but a good fall left him feeling better about his game. He tied for 15th at Kapalua last week.

Howell III, Stricker: Waialae's Wiley E. Coyotes
If you're drafting a Sony fantasy-league lineup, Charles Howell III is due or overdue to win here. He's missed the cut just once in nine starts, with five top-five finishes. He finished T4 in his first try (with a second-round 62) in 2002. He was T3 in '05, T2 in '07, fourth alone in '09, and T5 last year.

Steve Stricker, who was tied for the lead through 54 holes before finishing tied for fourth at Kapalua, comes into this week with similar Waialae mojo. He finished T4 in 2007 and '08, and solo third last year.

Both players were hard at work in the sun Tuesday.

Another Stanford product gives Tour modicum of diversity
It's been a long time since Tiger Woods burst onto the scene in 1996. Now comes Joseph Bramlett, 22, who graduated from Stanford in less than four years and in December was the first man of African-American heritage to survive Q-school (T16) since Adrian Stills in 1985.

Bramlett will make his first start of his rookie season at the Sony, but he's been on the radar of serious golf watchers for a while now.

At 14, he became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Amateur in 2002. He was an All-American as a freshman at Stanford, when the Cardinal won the NCAA championship, before wrist injuries threatened to prematurely end his promising career. He qualified for the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he played practice rounds with Woods.

Bramlett is scheduled to give a teleconference for the national news media Wednesday. He's signed with Nike, whose clubs he's always used.

Ernie Els announces new tournament for autism
Two-time Sony winner Ernie Els (2003, '04) finished a lackluster T17 at Kapalua, where he shot up the board with a second-round 64 but was done in by bad putting on the weekend. Alas, golf scores aren't everything.

Els announced Tuesday the inception of the Els for Autism Golf Challenge, which has the potential to be the largest charitable, amateur golf tournament in the world, and to bring in upwards of $5 million per year. The money will be used to fund the planned $30 million Els For Autism Center of Excellence, which will offer a digital learning platform and an education and research facility to families with autistic children.

Els's son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism four years ago.

"Years from now, people may remember me as a golfer and a major champion," Els said. "But I'd like also to be remembered as somebody who took the issue of autism and did something with it."

The tournament will use the Tour's TPC courses to host 32 "super regional" events nationwide, with each two-man team raising $2,500 for its entry fee. Contestants with a maximum handicap of 24 will play in the modified Stableford best-ball, and the low net and highest fundraising team will advance to a final, two-day event in Las Vegas in October.

More details are available at ErnieEls.com and E4Agolf.com.

The PGA Tour: These guys are largely unknown
Player ID badges will be prominently displayed this week, as 23 of the 25 Nationwide tour graduates will be in action at the Sony. Thirteen of those are first-year PGA Tour members, and 14 are under 30.

Jamie Lovemark, who won the developmental circuit's money title last year, will be the most closely watched alum, but others will be scrutinized for some form of identification.

Before venturing out for his practice round, Chris DiMarco introduced himself to Martin Piller and Bobby Gates on the first tee. Matt McQuillan's Australian caddie introduced him to two-time Tour winner Aaron Baddeley.

Said Els, who will turn 42 this year, "Sometimes you get out on the range here and you think it's a different tour."

Now it can be told: Why UNLV alums have crazy hair/facial hair
Andres Gonzales, pictured right, who got through all three stages of Q-school and is third alternate to get into the Sony, was impossible to ignore on the practice putting green at Waialae. He sports a mullet that, along with his facial hair, makes him look like he should be a reliever for the San Francisco Giants.

 

"I've had the facial hair for five years," said Gonzales, 27, "but I'm growing the hair out for Locks of Love (a charity that provides hairpieces to disadvantaged children). It's already bugging me."

Gonzales is a UNLV graduate, which is significant because so are Ryan Moore (the beard) and Charley Hoffman (the blond mullet).

"In college we weren't allowed to have any facial hair [as per the wishes of long-time men's golf coach Dwaine Knight]," Gonzales said. "So now it's the long-hair rebellion."

The exceptions to the rule: Still clean-cut UNLV grads Chad Campbell and Chris Riley.

There's a new big man on Tour
At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 228 pounds, Els used to be the last Tour pro you'd want to collide with in a dark alley or anywhere else.

Not anymore.

Michael Putnam, who finished 24th on the 2010 Nationwide money list before improving his status with a sixth at Q-school, is 6-5, 250 pounds. He's a former all-state high school basketball player from Tacoma, Wash.

"I was recruited by some of the local Division II schools," he said, "but by then I'd already committed to Pepperdine to play golf."

And has he run into Els yet this week? "I haven't seen him, but when I do I'll look down on him," Putnam said with a laugh.

Shag bag
Hawaii's Kevin Hayashi, 48, won a playoff in the rain at the Sony's Monday qualifier at Turtle Bay's Palmer Course to win the fourth and final spot in this week's field. John Merrick won the qualifier with a 66. Doug Labelle and long-hitting Tony Finau, 21, also made it. ... Champions tour pro Peter Senior, 51, who beat Geoff Ogilvy in sudden-death to win last month's Australian PGA, will try this week to get into the British Open at St. George's at 36-hole international qualifying at Melbourne's Kingston Heath. ... Zach Johnson, who split his toenail in half when he ran into a curb in the dark, is no longer playing with a hole cut into the tip of his left shoe. ... Jim Furyk, 40, coming off the best year of his career, will play the Sony after skipping the tournament last year. He won the tournament in 1996, and is coming off a T9 at Kapalua. Anthony Kim, T19 at Kapalua, will play here for the first time since he missed the cut in 2007.

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