Last year’s winners kick off 2011 with working vacation at Kapalua

December 9, 2011

KAPALUA, Hawaii — Ian Poulter is working at getting to know the course, as are Arjun Atwal, Francesco Molinari and a handful of other first-time participants at the 34-man Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the lid-lifter on the 2011 PGA Tour season, which starts Thursday on this par-73 onetime pineapple plantation. (Golf Channel, 5:30-10 p.m. ET, Thursday through Saturday; 6-10 Sunday.)

Graeme McDowell, coming off a dream season, is working at getting to know his new Cleveland/Srixon equipment, having switched from Callaway when his contract ran out at the end of last year. "I'm sure people are scratching their heads," he said of the change, which will take him back to the Cleveland clubs he played in college.

Steve Stricker is working to knock the rust off after his usual winter break in Madison, Wis. He is most definitely not working on his tan. "I'm not really a big beach guy," he said Tuesday. "You know, taking my shirt off, laying there on the beach, that's really not my style. You know, I'll go to the beach and wear my clothes there."

Everyone seems to be working on something heading into the Hyundai, but for the most part they're not working very hard. It is Hawaii, after all, and Kapalua is the land of hyphenated temptation (whale-watching, zip-lining), which renders the week's results not moot, exactly, but certainly not as important as usual. At Augusta National and elsewhere players are asked to find their nerve; at warm, breezy Kapalua they're asked which is more important on a working vacation, the work or the vacation?

Like many players, Stricker and Atwal brought their families. So did Jonathan Byrd, whose ace in semi-darkness netted him an overtime win in Las Vegas in October. Rocco Mediate, who won last fall for the first time in eight years, was reportedly so excited for the winners-only tournament he got here on New Year's Eve. According to the Maui News, he's gone from his Callaway equipment deal to no deal whatsoever.

"I can play any club I want, I can change anytime I want, I can do whatever I want," Mediate, 48, told the paper. "Nobody can tell me anything anymore."

That sounds like a man who is on vacation, but it should be noted that Mediate is one of a handful of short-ish hitters to have thrived here. He and K.J. Choi tied for second place, eight shots behind winner Ernie Els, in Mediate's last start at Kapalua in 2003.

Geoff Ogilvy, who was hoping for a threepeat this year to match countryman Stuart Appleby's 2004-2006 streak, has 12 stitches in his right index finger after a swimming accident on Tuesday. He skipped Wednesday's pro-am but has not withdrawn from the tournament.

Ogilvy and Appleby's past success here prompted some of the only semi-serious discussion of the day Tuesday. Namely, why are Australians so smitten with Kapalua?

"I think maybe the wind," Stricker said. "I would guess this wind doesn't really faze them as much as some other players." Ogilvy agrees that's part of it. Like all bigger hitters, he figures he also benefits from having a bit of extra room to miss off the tee, and it's helped to know the course, especially the greens, where he's led the field in putting in each of the last two years. It was hard-won wisdom.

"When I first came here, I couldn't understand how anybody shot the scores that they were shooting around here," he said. His first few years, in '06 and '07, were some of the windiest since the tournament has come to Maui.

"You need to learn a lot of things about this course," Stricker said. "There are some things here that we don't normally face at any other tournament. You've got big undulations, big downhill shots, some uphill shots, a lot of wind. The greens are huge. They are very good, they're smooth, but putting uphill is pretty slow and putting downhill is extremely fast."

Another factor in Ogilvy's run: Kapalua presents players with a succession of pitch shots from inside 80 yards, what with a handful of almost driveable par-4s and reachable or almost reachable par-5s. The pitch shot is one of Ogilvy's strengths.

"The first year [I won], '09, I hit it stiff from inside 80 yards all week," he said.

Last year Ogilvy bogeyed four of his first eight holes on Sunday before righting himself to go 7-under for his last 10 for his seventh Tour victory.

Ogilvy has made 53 birdies in his last 144 holes at the Plantation Course and he's 46 under par over that span, 11 strokes better than the next closest player, Sean O'Hair.

Appleby is another threat to win. In addition to his history at Kapalua, he's shown he can go crazy low. He shot 59 to win the Greenbrier Classic and secure his return to Kapalua for the first time since he tied for 13th to end his win streak in 2007.

As for why he dropped out of sight after winning at Kapalua last year, Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, cited the birth of his third child and a hectic schedule.

"I'm just not where I was last year," he said. "Just a bit over-golfed, I thought."

Crane's next video clip set for release Thursday
Ben Crane's humorous faux workout video became one of the underground sensations of 2010, and he hinted that there would be more zaniness to come.

Sure enough, the winner of the Farmer's Insurance Open at Torrey Pines said Tuesday that his next online video will be released on bencranegolf.comthis week.

"It's going to be on pre-round preparation," said Crane, a former University of Oregon golfer who plans to catch the red-eye from Maui to attend college football's national championship game between the Ducks and the Auburn Tigers on Monday.

"We've already got four [additional videos] in the hopper," Crane added.

Sadlowski to take on Tour's big hitters
When it plays downwind, the downhill, 663-yard, par-5 18th hole invites some prodigiously long drives (see below), so it's fitting that the hole will be the site of a Wednesday afternoon showdown between two-time Re/Max World Long Drive champion Jamie Sadlowski and the Tour's three longest hitters: Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Robert Garrigus. It will be shown live on Golf Channel.

Click here to learn more about Sadlowski's freakish power off the tee.

Shag bag
Tom Lehman has received a sponsor's exemption into the Waste Management Phoenix Open … McDowell isn't the only player switching to Cleveland/Srixon. Jeff Overton also has made the switch, which was announced on Cleveland's blog thusly on Tuesday: 'Boom Baby has arrived!' … The Plantation is No. 1 among Tour courses with the most drives of 400 yards or longer since 2003, with 150, half of which have come on the 18th hole. (La Cantera G.C. is second with 41 400-plus drives since '03.) … The 521-yard, par-5 ninth hole played easiest last year, nearly a full stroke under par … With Phil Mickelson (Masters), Louis Oosthuizen (British Open) and Martin Kaymer (PGA) opting to sit this week out, McDowell is the only 2011 major winner in the field.