Golf no longer has a set offseason


KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP)—The start of a new season doesn’t feel much differentfrom the old one.

Nine players—that’s one-third of the 27-man field at Kapalua—weretogether only a month ago at the Chevron World Challenge. A week later, eightplayers were in Florida for the Shark Shootout. They went home for the holidays,then packed their clubs and flew across the Pacific Ocean for the Tournament ofChampions for the 2012 season.

The offseason in golf isn’t what it used to be.

When this winners-only tournament first came to Kapalua in 1999, thelandscape in golf was different. The Tour Championship ended the first week inNovember, and the majority of players disappeared until the start of the newyear. The elite would only play in the silly season at events like the SkinsGame or the Shark Shootout. Some chased appearance money in Asia.

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David Toms was supposed to be at the Chevron World Challenge last month,part of an 18-man field playing for $5 million. He withdrew at the last minute,saying he was tired and wanted some time with his family.

“I needed a break,” Toms said. “If I would have played there, I’d havehad only three weeks, and some of that was spent on holidays.”

Nowadays, the offseason is whenever a player feels he can take time off.

Padraig Harrington has never been to Hawaii for the Tournament of Champions.He takes this time of the year to refresh and recharge in Ireland. Rory McIlroy is doing the same thing. Luke Donald , the No. 1 player in the world, didn’tstart his 2011 season until the third week in February at Riviera. GraemeMcDowell tried to take a four-week break in February.

Toms showed that players can make their offseason as long as they want it tobe. Even so, he worries that such time is getting harder to find in a globalgame that relies so heavily on the world ranking.

“For guys that want to get in big tournaments, if they stop at Disney oreven before that, they can lose so many spots,” he said. “I’ve taken off threemonths and lost 20 spots in the ranking. And you’ve got big tournaments early inthe season when you need it. So you’re kind of forced to play.”

When he tied for third in the McGladrey Classic, his final tournament in2010, Toms was No. 62 in the world. He took off three months, returning at theBob Hope Classic, and had slipped all the way to No. 84. He did not get in theMatch Play Championship or the Cadillac Championship that year, missing twoplaying opportunities in World Golf Championships.

This year was a little different.

Toms chose to miss the biggest college football game of the year—Alabamaagainst his beloved LSU Tigers—and flew halfway around the world to China forthe HSBC Champions. He also played the Australian Open in the week before thePresidents Cup in Australia.

“I went to China trying to improve that ranking; I would never have goneover there,” he said. “I played in the Australian Open because there wereworld ranking points there. That’s stuff that I would never do. So what’s goingto happen now is I’ll play some, and then I’ll need some time off during ourseason instead of taking time off the other way.

“So you have options, but you don’t,” he said. “If you want to maintain acertain status, or a certain level, you’ve got to play.”

At some point, though, Toms needs a break.

So do the others.

Steve Stricker won the Match Play Championship at the start of the 2001season and took nearly two months off toward the end of the season, even to thepoint of risking his spot in the Tour Championship for the top 30 on the moneylist. He narrowly made it. Walking on the practice range one day at ChampionsGolf Club in Houston, Tiger Woods saw him and said, “Welcome back out ofretirement.”

It’s not much different now. Stricker took off nearly two months before thePresidents Cup. Part of that was to rest a weakened left arm, though he hadplanned only one tournament between the Tour Championship and Presidents Cupeven if he had been healthy.

“It’s tough to find the time,” Stricker said. “You can play all yearlong, but I think you’ve still got to find the time. You’ve got to still getaway, find the time where you can set the clubs down for a little while and getrefreshed and ready to go for another year. Because it’s a long year, andthere’s so many big things at the end of it all that you want to make sureyou’re fresh and still able to play at the end.”

Stricker is taking four weeks off when he finishes next week in the SonyOpen. He’ll return at Riviera.

As much grumbling as there is about the weak field at Kapalua, it’s aproduct of where players live, how they build a worldwide schedule and when theycan find time to take a break.

Donald played three times in December. McIlroy played five times over thelast two months. Masters champion Charl Schwartzel is the defending championnext week in the Joburg Open in his native South Africa.

This is all new for Keegan Bradley , a rookie who figured his season wouldend quietly sometime in September. That was before he won the PGA Championship.Before long, he was off to Bermuda for the Grand Slam of Golf, then to China forthe HSBC Champions, and the Chevron and Shark Shootout.

But he’s not complaining. Plus, he’s young.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Bradley said. “It was fun. But you couldplay more in the offseason than you do in the regular season if you wanted to.”

So it’s the start of the new year for some, and it feels like a continuationof the old year for others. All of them will take a break at some point, andwhen they do, there will be tournaments that wished they were playing.

Then again, golfers have no guaranteed income from tournaments. They areself-employed, independent contractors.

That much hasn’t changed.