Season openers
getting stronger

Sony and Mercedes stepped up to make
Hawaii the place to tee off the year

Els reaches new high with wins

By Paul Arnett

There was a promo last week on the USA Network touting that cable company's broadcast of this week's Phoenix Open in Arizona. The announcer's closing comment on the PGA Tour commercial was, "The West Coast Swing starts here."


Actually, the West Coast Swing began two weeks ago on Maui with the $5 million winners-only Mercedes Championships, followed by the recently completed $4.5 million Sony Open in Hawaii. And while being dissed by the cable network is an irritant for those responsible for these two Hawaii-based tour events, the players know better.

Before the PGA reached agreements in the late 1990s for the Mercedes and Sony Open to begin the tour season here in the island chain, the Hawaiian Open was viewed as a mid-major event. A beautiful stop perhaps, but not that high on the list of top-rated players.

It was difficult for the tour to begin in California in January, switch to Hawaii in February, then go back to California or Arizona the following week. Players didn't always want to fly halfway around the world to compete on a difficult, breezy course, then return to the mainland beat down from battling the trades and jet-lagged from the 5,000-mile journey.

With big money also becoming an issue at every stop, United was asked to come up with some major dollars to retain its sponsorship, something the airline couldn't manage. As an example, the 1998 Hawaiian Open boasted a purse of $1.8 million with the winner receiving $324,000, and that was a major jump from the $1.2 million payout the year before.

Enter the Sony and Mercedes corporations. Both had deep enough pockets to accommodate the major purses now common worldwide. Starting the tour in Hawaii, five hours behind the East Coast, also made sense from a television perspective. ESPN-TV was able to show the final rounds in prime time.

Three years ago, the playoff between Ernie Els and Tiger Woods at the Mercedes drew the biggest television rating in the history of golf on ESPN. Slowly but surely, players began to see the value of opening the season on Maui on a wide-open venue, then shifting to Oahu to play a tight course where shaping shots is a premium.

What better way for a player to get ready for the coming campaign than being asked to use all the shots in his bag. South African Ernie Els talked about it at the Mercedes and during the Sony Open.

"On Maui, you can kind of free-wheel it on every hole and not worry as much about landing in the fairway because they're so wide there," Els said. "Then you come over here to a completely different setup where shot selection and course management are important. It gives me a lot of confidence that I was able to win at two entirely different sites."

Having the world's No. 2 player back here for two weekends next January is a good thing for fans of both tournaments. This was, and still is, an uneasy marriage between these two rival events. The Mercedes, which is a winners-only tournament, had a higher profile thanks to Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval being in the field every year.

Still, the Sony Open has benefited from the world's best taking a tour of Maui. Els, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh, just to drop a few names, have decided to make the Sony Open a regular tour of duty. True enough, Woods, Mickelson and Duval have yet to play the twinbill, but that may change.

"I think this year's Sony Open field was one of the best Oahu has seen," golf analyst Mark Rolfing said.

"More and more players are seeing the advantage of playing in both or starting their seasons here if they don't make the Mercedes. This was a quality field for Oahu golf fans."

Rolfing is directly responsible for the PGA Tour beginning its season on Maui. His successful Kapalua International event that was played in November was replaced by the Mercedes Championships. Tour officials moved it to January, then made the Sony Open the first full-field event the following week.

"It's great for golf fans in Hawaii and it's great for tourism," Rolfing said. "All through the broadcasts are these promo shots of the islands to people in cold environments on the mainland. It's hard to put a dollar value on that."

Having Sony as a sponsor has also fueled interest in Japan and other countries on the other side of the Pacific Rim. Last week's field had an international flavor, including 10 golfers from Japan. The Australians also made a name for themselves last week.

Including 21-year-old sensation Aaron Baddeley, who lost to Els in a dramatic playoff, the Aussies were well represented here. Baddeley earned a second-place check for $486,000, Robert Allenby pocketed $198,000 for his fourth-place tie, the recently married Stuart Appleby shot a 63 on Sunday to make $162,000 for finishing sixth, and Peter Lonard rounded out the Aussie invasion by earning $94,500 for his 12th-place tie.

"The guys are seeing the advantage to playing the Sony Open, especially if you're in the Mercedes," current player and golf analyst Fred Couples said. He missed making the cut here by one shot. "I've always enjoyed playing over here. But if you look at this week's field, it's one of the best I've seen. A lot more guys filling out their schedules are making plans to play in Hawaii."

Sony Open

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