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Tournament of Champions in Kapalua kicks off season with small field that's happy to be in paradise

Photo: Kohjiro Kinno / SI

Jonathan Byrd returns this week as the defending champion at Kapalua.

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Jonathan Byrd’s 5-year-old son walked off the plane and into Maui’s Kahului Airport, saw the promotional signs featuring his father, and came to a reasonable conclusion:

“Dad,” he said. “I think you’re famous.”

“At least for this week I am,” said Byrd, the defending champion at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which begins Friday.

The holidays are over and warmer weather is on its way, even if it’s not yet around the corner—that’s what the TOC means to fans. To players in the field, it’s the first true indication they’ve made it, in many cases despite long odds.

Jhonny Vegas didn’t speak a word of English when he moved to America a week before his 18th birthday after he tied for sixth place at the 2002 Callaway Junior World at Torrey Pines. He lived and worked with his coach in Houston, honed his game playing college golf at Texas, and won the Bob Hope in a playoff last year. 

Harrison Frazar, 40, nearly quit golf after a series of injuries and was even plotting which 2011 tournament would be his last. Then he won for the first time in Memphis, securing a ticket to golf paradise (the Masters) and plain old paradise (Maui).

Much of this year’s Kapalua preamble has centered on who is not here. Of the 39 players who qualified with official, PGA Tour-sanctioned victories last year, only 28 are playing. That makes the field even smaller than the most elite gathering of the year, the 30-man Tour Championship, which decides the FedEx Cup.

Steve Stricker (sixth) and Webb Simpson (10) will be the highest ranked players at Kapalua’s Plantation Course because others, like top-ranked Luke Donald and U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, are recharging after a busy 2011, and gearing up to start their season in Abu Dhabi in three weeks. Others still, like Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker, are coming off injuries.

Tiger Woods, who will open his season in Abu Dhabi, didn’t qualify for Kapalua, and even if his win at the (unofficial) Chevron World Challenge last month had gotten him here, he likely wouldn’t have come. He won a duel with Ernie Els on the Plantation Course in 2000, but he hasn’t played here since he tied for third in 2005. 

Those who remain aren’t exactly complaining.

“It’s a lot easier to beat 28 guys than it is to be 144 or 156,” Byrd said.

What’s more, it’s entirely possible that the Hyundai will make news anyway. The tournament will finish on a Monday for the first time, a move meant to circumvent a crowded TV sports landscape dominated by the NFL playoffs. And Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller will share analysis duties for Golf Channel, which may or may not be golf broadcasting’s equivalent of Hendrix-meets-Clapton.

In its first year as part of the NBC Sports Group, a year in which the injured Woods appeared in only 10 PGA Tour events, Golf Channel announced that 2011 was still the most-watched year in its 17-year history, according to Nielsen research. PGA Tour viewership was up 23 percent. As always, many snowbound viewers in the lower 48 will tune in to vicariously soak up the sun and surf of Hawaii this week, even if they don’t recognize many faces under the visors and caps on the course.      

The storylines at the Hyundai will include the game’s youth movement. Of the record six rookies who won in 2011, five are at Kapalua, as are 12 of the season’s 14 first-time winners. Eleven of the 28 players are under 30, and that makes sense. They are the players for whom Maui still means something, for whom it’s anything but redundant to be told they’ve made it big.

“The course is crazier than I would have thought,” said PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who played a practice round Tuesday. “I knew it was going to be hilly and rolling, but this is a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be.”

A year ago, Bradley said, “I was getting ready to head to Sony, and I was flipping out that I was starting my PGA Tour career, and I was a mess.” Now he’s a two-time Tour winner. He also captured the Franklin Templeton Shootout with Brendan Steele last month, making them the first rookie winners of the event, and the Grand Slam of Golf, besting Charl Schwartzel, Darren Clarke and McIlroy.

Despite all that, Bradley has much to prove. Or at least that’s what he’s telling himself. The nephew of Pat Bradley, the ferociously competitive LPGA Hall of Famer, Keegan, 25, believes complacency is the beginning of the end: “The moment you relax a little bit, I think, is when you don’t play as well.”

That’s youth for you. Like many players, Frazar is here with his family, making sure to savor one of the juiciest perks of a long, mostly fruitless career. Byrd, who will turn 34 later this month, is also committed to taking in the gorgeous scenery, not that he doesn’t have goals. Like Bradley and most every other American, he would like to make Davis Love’s 12-man team for the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah. He’d like to improve his par-3 performance. Mostly, though, he wants to ease into 2012 with the knowledge that it’s a long year, and a long career.

“I want to have a little more easy-going, lighthearted attitude on the golf course,” Byrd said. “That helps me play well.”

In this tournament on a mountainside, where players can look out in the distance and whale-watch even as they compete for the $1.12 million first prize, such an attitude should be abundantly easy to cultivate. 

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