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Who Can Shake the Rust First at the Hyundai Tourney of Champions?

Hyundai Tournament of Champions Boasts Stacked Field to Kick Off 2016
Jordan Spieth and Jason Day headline a strong field in the 2016 PGA Tour opener, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, Hawaii.

KAPALUA, Hawaii – How fast can you find it?

That's the question being asked of the 32 players in the field at this week's Hyundai Tournament of Champions, many of whom are coming off breaks lasting anywhere from several weeks to three months.

"I played four holes," Jason Day said of his long off season, which included carrying a video camera at a Detroit Lions/Green Bay Packers game, witnessing the birth of his daughter Lucy, and getting run over (with wife Ellie) by LeBron James on the floor of a Cleveland Cavaliers game.

"A good four holes, too," Day added. "It was a team thing and we started out eagle, birdie, par, birdie, and most of that wasn’t me. I was doing an RBC day down in Florida and played four holes with some of the guys."

It’s been 45 days since Kevin Kisner hoisted the trophy after the last official shot of 2015 was struck at the RSM Classic on Nov. 22, ending the calendar year in golf. Smylie Kaufman, a 23-year-old Web.com graduate who immediately won the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in October, will launch the first drive of 2016 when he tees off at 3:20 EST Thursday. (The Hyundai will revert back to a Sunday finish this year.)

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A lot has happened in those 45 days, not all of it golf related.

Although there is no official algorithm to determine which players took the most time away from the game, a good rule of thumb is the younger the player, the less likely he is to have mothballed the clubs.

Kaufman, Justin Thomas (22) and Emiliano Grillo (23) all won Tour events in the fall, which means they are anything but rusty. And they’re too young to be tired. Brought into the interview room together earlier this week, the three friends from the AJGA and Web.com were so excited they kept finishing each other’s sentences.

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Patrick Reed, 25, hasn’t taken much time off, either. “I went 10 days where I didn’t touch a club,” the defending Hyundai champ said Wednesday. He added, “I feel like my game is the best it’s ever been.” The results back him up: Reed is coming off six straight top-10 worldwide finishes.

At the other end of the age spectrum is Wyndham Championship winner Davis Love III, the oldest player in Maui at 51. Love has been snowboarding, not playing golf, in Sun Valley, Idaho. And why not? He has little left to prove, and the Gem State is having an above average snow year.

“I’m not the rustiest guy in the field,” Love said, “but I’m in the top five, probably.”

Also in that group would be second-ranked Day, who all but vanished after ending last season with four wins in six starts, including his first major championship at the PGA. Almost as impressive: In the three-plus months between the U.S. Open (T9) and Tour Championship (T10) Day finished no worse than 12th. Since then? Well, uh…

“I will have had 72 holes of actual golf on this golf course before I tee it up,” said Day, who tied the course record with a final-round 62 at last year’s Hyundai TOC, where he tied for third. “And also the practice that I had before that, as well. So nine days of practice and prep for this week.

“It’s just trying to get that mental sharpness back,” he added.

Photo:

Rickie Fowler waits to putt during practice rounds prior to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club on Jan. 5, 2016, in Lahaina, Hawaii.

At least one other player may have already found it.

After playing a practice round with Rickie Fowler earlier this week, No. 1 Jordan Spieth said Fowler appeared to be “on fire” and “in mid-season form.” Spieth has been pretty hot, too, winning five tournaments, including two majors, and 2015 Player of the Year. He’s coming off a tie for second at the Australian Open and a fourth at the Hero World Challenge in Bermuda.

But does anyone really know what to expect this week? Does he?

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“I do love this golf course,” said Spieth, the runner-up to Dustin Johnson in the 54-hole Hyundai TOC in 2014, his only other start here. “I love the grainy Bermuda. It’s fun—the elevation changes, having to judge the elevation with the wind. The ball does some crazy stuff out here.”

Spieth got here with his family on Wednesday, Dec. 30, but not just to practice.

“We were jumping off the cliff house, doing a lot of snorkeling, spear-fishing,” he said.

All that leisure time is part of what makes the Hyundai hard to predict even for a working vacation. Defending champ Geoff Ogilvy cut his finger on some coral and withdrew before the 2011 TOC. Lucas Glover sprained his right knee falling off a paddleboard in 2012. But mostly the Hyundai is a crapshoot because of rust.

“Three weeks in Hawaii is a great way to start,” said Love, who will play the Sony Open followed by the (senior tour) Mitsubishi Championship at Hualalai. “I’ve done this a lot. I’ve come to Kapalua right from Idaho. I told my caddie the first goal was to get all the plastic, the green stuff, off the bottom of my clubs because they’ve been hit off the mat for a week.”

As goals go it’s a modest one, but here in the land of pineapples and pina coladas, rainbows and hula, anything more than modest goals might seem a tad bit self-serious. Work, after all, is the bane of the leisure class.

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