Young guns ready to fill superstar void beginning at the Sony Open

Na Yeon Choi, Samsung World Championship
Reed Saxon/AP
Na Yeon Choi made birdie on the final hole to win the Samsung by one.

Although the PGA Tour would have you believe the 2010 season has already begun, with the winners-only SBS Championship at Maui's Kapalua last week, there is ample reason to consider this week's Sony Open the more significant season-opener.

First and most obviously, the Sony is a full-field event (144 players), not a highly lucrative 28-man whale-watching trip, with a bit of golf.

More importantly the Sony is about new beginnings in more ways than one. The Tour is in the throes of a superstar void, what with Tiger Woods only a rumor and Phil Mickelson enjoying the last of his winter break. But there are many fine candidates to fill the void, and they will be in action at the cozy Waialae Country Club this week:

Rickie Fowler, the Oklahoma State product who heads into his rookie season having already lost sudden-death playoffs on the Nationwide and regular PGA Tours, is the most prominent of the many exciting young players who will try to make an immediate impact. Fowler has proven himself ready to win in the big leagues, coming up just short in a playoff loss at the Frys.com Open last fall.

"I exceeded expectations," he said this week. "And I exceeded my own."

With Ryan Moore taking the week off — he is not a fan of Waialae — Fowler, who landed a sponsor's exemption into the Waste Management Phoenix Open, is expected to vie for low painter's cap with Ricky Barnes.

Cameron Tringale — who is thinking of moving in with Fowler in Las Vegas, Fowler said Tuesday — never missed a tournament in his four years at Georgia Tech, and put together the best stroke average of any of that school's famous alumni (Stewart Cink, David Duval) save for Bryce Molder. Since his goal was always to play on Tour, and the pros wear slacks on Tour, Tringale wore slacks even while his collegiate competitors wore shorts, and even when you could fry an egg on a lob wedge.

Tringale survived all three stages of Q school and rallied over his final nine holes to secure his card. Brent Everson, fulltime caddie for Brett Wetterich, caddied for Tringale and came away impressed with the straight-driving, unflappable newcomer.

"This kid is like another Jim Furyk," Everson gushed to Tringale's agent.

• As a collegiate player at Boise State, Troy Merritt won everything there was to win in the WAC, and made an impression as a fearless putter. "I've never seen anybody make so many 20-footers-plus," says Boise State Coach Kevin Burtin, who played the Tour in '97.

Still, it wasn't until the Idaho native Merritt won the Tour's Q school wire-to-wire last fall that anyone outside Boise knew who he was. Odds are we'll hear more from him, especially if he figures out Waialae's greens.

Burton likes to tell the following story about his old star: Merritt was comfortably leading a college tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif., when he came to the 18th hole, a par-5 where the approach shot was a forced carry over water, to a tucked pin.

"I think you've got this one in the bag," Burton said to Merritt in the 18th fairway. "Just play safe to the left."

"But I have to make birdie," Merritt replied.

Coach: "Why?"

Merritt: "Because if I make birdie I break the tournament record."

In the end, Merritt did play safe, barely missing the left side of the green with his second shot, nearly chipping in for eagle, and tapping in for birdie. He is the player for whom beating the field isn't enough; he has to beat everyone else who ever beat the field.

• As was the case with last year's stealth standout Marc Leishman, the 2010 Rookie of the Year may be a guy you've really never heard of. That description would fit Merritt's old Boise State teammate Graham DeLaet, who was trailing only Merritt at Q school until a poor final round. DeLaet speaks loudest with his driver.

At the Dunhill Links last year, he found himself paired with Padraig Harrington, who at one point wheeled around and in mock exasperation said, "You've been by me by 40 yards every hole. Do you even know what your clubhead speed is?"

Replied the young bomber: "I have no idea."

Although Merritt has been at Waialae since Saturday — as have several others, including Davis Love III, trying to knock the rust off — DeLaet made a stop at the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif., on Monday, to pick up a new 2-hybrid.

The fate of this year's young guns will be only one of many subplots this week, which will begin to tell us who practiced and who drank eggnog and read US Weekly over the winter break. Among the pressing questions to be answered at Waialae:

Will Charles Howell III hurry up and win a Sony Open already?
He was fourth last year, T2 in '07 (his most conspicuous failure to convert), T3 in '05 and T4 in '02. In short, Howell could have bought a lovely Hawaiian island with his Waialae earnings by now. He would seem destined to win here, but then again Greg Norman seemed destined to win at Augusta, until he didn't.

Can Tim Clark finally break through on the PGA Tour?
He proved his bona fides in a match play victory over Woods at the WGC-Accenture and a ridiculously strong performance at the Presidents Cup, both last year, but hasn't risen to the occasion when he's had a chance to win on Tour. Clark is no bomber, and Waialae's winner's circle (Paul Azinger, Paul Goydos, David Toms) is chock full of non-bombers. It's past time for Tim to finally come through on a Sunday afternoon.

Will John Daly be anything but a curiosity?
The newly svelte sponsor's invite is trying to make noise with his game, and his trousers (Loudmouth Golf) in 2010, in that order. Waialae would not seem to suit Daly's big game, but fellow bomber Bubba Watson finished 4th here in '06.

A few years ago Daly handed down a pair of his size-34 Girbaud jeans to SFX Sports agent Terry Reilly, ruefully saying, "These don't fit me anymore."

But 2009 was the year of the incredible shrinking Daly, who had lap band surgery and dropped more than 100 pounds. So when Reilly organized a nine-hole Daly/J.B. Holmes exhibition at a course opening in Lexington, Ky., late last year, he brought the pants and tried to give them back. Daly, a 34 again, declined to take his old togs back because he's now with Loudmouth, but the fact remains: He's a new man.

"He's legitimately skinny," Reilly says. "It's a little startling."

Will Jesper Parnevik continue to sound off on Tiger?
The Swede who ripped Woods in the press in early December enjoys the Sony, bringing the whole family to Waialae, where Adam Sandler sightings are commonplace. (Sandler vacations here and stays at the posh hotel by the golf course, like players and their families.) But so far he seems intent on keeping quiet.

Is Parnevik still smarting over having introduced his nanny, Elin Nordegren, to Woods? If so, our suggested Sandler movie for Jesper is ... "{C}Anger Management{C}".

Is Brad Faxon, 48, warming up for the Champions Tour or the broadcast booth?
The 2001 Sony Open winner is using his one-time exemption as a top-50 career money-winner to play the Tour in 2010, but he will also transition to TV work with NBC.

Will Sabbatini make us forget about that other Rory?
The jug-eared South African stole the show and nearly the tournament with a final-round 63 at Kapalua, and he's finished second at the Sony in '06 and '08.

And speaking of South Africans, Ernie Els, who grew up playing golf with Rory's older brother, won at Waialae in '03 and '04 and seemed to have cracked the code here when he finished runner-up in '05. One golf website called his record here "impeccable."

Actually, it's very "peccable." Els finished T39 here last year. His putting has been weak, but he showed flashes of his old form in 2009.

Can David Toms make another Ryder Cup team?
He turned 42 last week but loves Hawaii, having won the Sony in '06 (his last victory) and finished T2 with Adam Scott (not in this year's field) in '09. Brian Gay, who missed making the U.S. Presidents Cup team despite winning twice last season, finished T5 at Waialae last year. It's his kind of course, too.

• On other tours, last week's winner Charl Schwartzel headlines the Euro circuit's Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club. Ryder Cupper Soren Hansen and British Open nearly man Chris Wood also are in the field.

 

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