KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Only winners are invited to Kapalua to start the new season at the Mercedes-Benz Championship, making it perhaps the toughest of all PGA Tour events to join.
Once in paradise, it might be the easiest tournament all year to win.
For starters, only 31 players are in the field. Thirteen have never competed on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, with its mountainous terrain, massive greens and severe slopes. And while all of these guys know what it takes to win, most haven’t hit a meaningful shot in more than a month.
“Never thought of it that way,” Mark Calcavecchia said. “There’s 31 guys here this year, and there’s 30 at the Tour Championship. But Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson aren’t here, so that increases your chances of winning greatly. I might have to agree with you on that.”
In what is becoming a tradition the tour could do without, the top two players in the world ranking have decided to sit out opening day. Woods, who won at Kapalua in 2000, cited a desire to spend more time with his family. Mickelson, who hasn’t played at Kapalua since 2001, did not give the tournament a reason.
Also missing this week are British Open champion Padraig Harrington, who traditionally takes his one full month off in January, and Adam Scott of Australia, who withdrew over the weekend citing exhaustion.
That leaves only four of the top 10 in the world at Kapalua to start the year Thursday, and few complaining about it. Most of them are simply thrilled to be in these parts, reminded of what they did to get a starting time.
Six players got in after the FedEx Cup season ended, winning in the Fall Series. That list includes former Masters champion Mike Weir, former British Open champion Justin Leonard and Chad Campbell, who said his victory in the Viking Classic “turned a below-average year into a pretty good one.”
Two guys haven’t been to Kapalua in six years – Steve Stricker and Scott Verplank, whose previous victory was in 2001.
Stricker was among the first to arrive, getting in a few practice rounds on the weekend when the weather was decent, playing in shorts that showed what appeared to be a tan line around his ankles.
“It was from the summer,” said Stricker, who has been up to his knees in snow at home in Wisconsin.
Paul Goydos hasn’t been to a tournament at Kapalua since it was part of the silly season. He used to play in the Lincoln-Mercury Kapalua International, a field of about 100 players held in the late fall.
“It was much easier to get into that event than this one,” Goydos said. “But I think the Mercedes is almost the most important tournament of the year. This is the event you play in because you accomplished, at least for one week, the goals you have every week. Take away the Grand Slam of Golf (for only major winners), and it’s a pretty hard field to get in.”
Goydos is among those relatively surprised to be at Kapalua. He had not won since the 1996 Bay Hill Invitational, and he kept his card for the 2007 season only with a runner-up finish in the final event of the year. But he won in his first start at the Sony Open in Honolulu, and he found himself in elite company – even without Woods and Mickelson.
As for the absence of No. 1 and No. 2?
“I have a different perspective than a guy that wins 10 times a year,” Goydos said. “I think it’s an important event. But again, I don’t have to endure what a Phil or a Tiger has to endure each week. Until I’m in their shoes, I’m not going to worry about it too much.”
What kind of game these 31 guys bring to a Plantation Course that is long and soft because of recent rain remains a mystery. Stuart Appleby won three straight years, and one prevailing reason was he had been playing in Australia leading to Kapalua.
Verplank hasn’t played since Disney, choosing to have minor thumb surgery. He played his first full round in nearly two months on Saturday. Campbell packed it in after Las Vegas in mid-October. He played twice a week with friends at Shady Oaks in Fort Worth, Texas, didn’t touch a club for 3 1/2 weeks, then began to practice hard a week before Christmas.
Brandt Snedeker played in Japan and Australia last month, but he arrived in Hawaii feeling dizzy and weak from the flu. Boo Weekley has been in the woods with a rifle, not a 4-iron, and trying to get a house built. He figured he had a better chance of shooting an 82 than a 62, so his expectations aren’t that great.
Woody Austin has been home in Kansas suffering through cold, ice and snow, but he did thaw out enough to play with Calcavecchia in the Merrill Lynch Shootout, which they won.
It wasn’t long before Calcavecchia started doing the math.
“Some of the guys haven’t been here, and they’re probably at a slight disadvantage because there’s so much elevation change and putts that I remember over the years that are tough putts,” he said. “You figure if there’s 31 guys here, at least six or seven of them are just going to flat-out not play very good. If you play well, you’re down to 20, 22 players you’ve got to try to beat.
“It does help that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott and Padraig aren’t here, four world-class players. So that increases everybody’s chances to win.”