Big names on the sidelines for opening Tour event

By Doug FergusonJanuary 3, 2012, 10:33 pm

KAPALUA, Hawaii – The list of who’s not at the season-opening Tournament of Champions reads more like a “Who’s Who.”

Missing are three of the four major champions – Charl Schwartzel, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, who at 22 already is on the very short list of golfers capable of moving the needle no matter where they play.

If that’s not enough, three of the four World Golf Championship winners from last year are not at Kapalua, either.

Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, recently returned home from a year-end journey that took him from South Africa to Dubai to Australia. Adam Scott was home in Australia watching his girlfriend, Ana Ivanovic, win her opening match in the Brisbane International as she gets ready for first Grand Slam of the year. Martin Kaymer of Germany is gearing up for his title defense in Abu Dhabi.

So who’s left?

A 28-man field of PGA Tour winners, tying the record for the smallest field to start the PGA Tour season on the shores of Maui.

With apologies to PGA champion Keegan Bradley, WGC winner Nick Watney and FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas, the biggest stars at Kapalua might be found in the broadcast booth. Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo have agreed to be co-analysts for the first time.

A year ago, the winners-only field at Kapalua had 19 of the top 40 in the world. Now there are 19 of the top 100. The only two players from the top 10 are Steve Stricker and Webb Simpson.

The PGA Tour no longer starts with trumpets blaring. It’s more like a solo on the ukulele.

Then again, this is nothing new.

Phil Mickelson caused a ripple when he stopped coming to Kapalua in 2002. Tiger Woods caused more of a tidal wave when he decided not to play in 2006, and he hasn’t been back since (although he hasn’t been eligible the last two years).

The Tour has toyed with the idea of expanding the field, either by inviting all past winners at Kapalua (Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk and Geoff Ogilvy) or by offering a two-year exemption to the Tournament of Champions for PGA Tour winners.

That wouldn’t solve the problem. Some would argue that golf has too many exclusive, limited-field tournaments already. This one is worth keeping because there’s only one way to stand on the first tee with such splendid, sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Winning should still mean something.

It would be easy to suggest these guys are spoiled. How hard is it to fly to a tropical paradise at the start of the year, be treated to a free room at a Ritz-Carlton that hugs the Maui coastline, play in a small field with no cut for a $5.6 million purse and play a course carved out of a mountain that is different from anything they play all year?

But there’s more to it than that.

Of the 11 players who aren’t at Kapalua, most have a valid reason. Brandt Snedeker, Fredrik Jacobson and Dustin Johnson are recovering from injuries. Kaymer and Clarke aren’t even PGA Tour members, and might want to save their starts for later in the year, perhaps closer to the majors or when they can put a couple of tournaments together.

Justin Rose’s wife just gave birth to their second child.

And with winners coming from all over the world, respect must be shown to the worldwide game. Padraig Harrington never played in the Tournament of Champions because this is when he traditionally takes his break from a long season. That’s the case for McIlroy and Donald. Schwartzel has tournaments in his native South Africa this month.

Graeme McDowell had a blast at Kapalua last year, especially when he shot 62 on the last day and finished third. Coming off a frenetic finish to his 2010 season that took him across oceans, however, he realizes now that he would have been better served taking an entire month off instead of going from Northern Ireland to Hawaii to the Middle East. He never quite recovered.

One culprit for the Tournament of Champions lacking some punch might be the FedEx Cup.

When the concept was pitched to the players in 2005, one of the selling points was that the regular season would end at the Tour Championship in late September, giving players three months off if they wanted.

“That selling point is not there anymore,” Furyk said.

The PGA Tour now is pushing a plan to start the new season with the Fall Series, which might tempt some players to keep going. But that’s only a small part of this big picture. Players still can choose to play whenever and wherever they want.

More than the FedEx Cup, the global nature of the game is shaping golf’s new landscape.

There is simply no getting around it. For international players, most of them PGA Tour members now, they are playing deep into the season on the European Tour.

The fourth World Golf Championship – and the only one outside the United States – is in early November in China. There are strong tournaments leading to the season finale in Dubai, and there are other tournaments that offer small fields and big purses in South Africa and California that are hard to ignore.

The PGA Tour remains the strongest in golf, which is not to say golf revolves around the PGA Tour.

Golf is unlike other sports, and it’s silly to try to pattern it after the other leagues.

This is not opening day. It’s not the Daytona 500.

These days, golf has different starting points to the season. The first tournament is for winners only at Kapalua. The first network TV event is at Torrey Pines. The first tournament with a super strong field is in Abu Dhabi. The first major is the Masters. All are respectively attractive to hard-core fans, casual fans and eventually the mainstream.

Watch live coverage of the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions on Golf Channel: Fri.-Sun., 6-10PM ET; Monday, 4-8PM ET.

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.