Golf's top 4 stay away from Maui


POSTED: Wednesday, January 07, 2009

KAPALUA, Maui » With a shade more than $1 million going to the winner of the Mercedes-Benz Championship on Sunday, you can only sit back in wonder that the top four players in the world don't need it to fill their dance card.

Conspicuous by their absence in the PGA Tour's season-opening event are world No. 1 Tiger Woods (injured), No. 2 Sergio Garcia (playing in Abu Dhabi next week), No. 3 Phil Mickelson (hasn't been here in seven years) and No. 4 Padraig Harrington (winter break).

Unless there is a major shakeup in the tour schedule or a tweaking of the rules that now allow only winners from the previous year to be eligible, then this tournament could go the same way as the Pro Bowl when the contract runs dry in 2010.

It doesn't take a whiz kid with numbers to see the good folks at Mercedes might not be willing to sponsor this $5.6 million event if the world's best aren't going to gather in Hawaii for a post holiday get-together. Not that this week's field of 33 players is devoid of stars. Past Mercedes champions Vijay Singh—winner of the FedExCup in 2008—and Ernie Els are touring the par-73 Plantation Course this week.

Joining them are 2008 winner Daniel Chopra, USA Ryder Cup team members Stewart Cink, J.B. Holmes, Anthony Kim, Justin Leonard, Kenny Perry and Boo Weekley. The past two Masters winners—South Africa's Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson—as well as local favorite Parker McLachlin, FedExCup runner-up Camilo Villegas, Australian Adam Scott and future Hall of Famer Davis Love III help give the elite field its heft.

But in this shrinking economy that has tourists heading elsewhere, plus the prohibitive costs of doing business in the island chain, don't be surprised if the off-the-course issues have a direct effect on the future of big-time golf remaining on Maui the next decade.

The Aloha Season has already lost the Grand Slam of Golf, the LPGA's Fields Open and the senior circuit's Turtle Bay Championship. Kapalua helped ease the pain by adding the Kapalua Classic in October, a late-season LPGA tournament, but it's still without a title sponsor, leaving its long-range future in question.

Gary Planos, tournament director of the Kapalua Classic and the Mercedes-Benz Championship, put a positive spin on both events last fall. He particularly enjoyed seeing Kapalua's own Morgan Pressel winning the inaugural tournament, but conceded times are dicey for the Mercedes.

Those here in the 33-man field are excited about the prospects of playing the wide-open layout designed by Ben Crenshaw that has vast fairways and spacious greens. Kim is glad to be a part of this elite field and said as much yesterday during a press conference.

“;I've seen this tournament on TV, and it's always nice to get a win and get a nice new Mercedes with it. So I've been looking forward to this tournament for a long time. I feel like I've come a long way with my game and my attitude, And hopefully, if I can stay on this roll, I feel like I've turned a corner, and if I can keep my head down and stay focused, I'm going to be in good shape for this year.”;

Those who are long off the tee have a good chance here. Els falls into that category and is back in the field for the first time since 2005. His 2003 victory here set the PGA Tour course record in relation to par in a 72-hole event—31 under. That same year, defending Sony Open in Hawaii champion K.J. Choi set the course record with an 11-under 62 in the third round.

Only six golfers are back from last year. They are Chopra, Singh, Choi, Leonard, Weekley and Zach Johnson.