PGA Tour Goes from Underpaid to Fat and Sassy

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04 Mercedes ChampionshipsKAPALUA, Maui -- On a dreary morning of clouds and drizzle, all it took was a sudden burst of sun for Kapalua to produce a brilliant welcome to the start of the PGA Tour season. Stretching across the horizon was a massive rainbow, a 180-degree arc of colors that poured into the blue waters of the Pacific.
 
The rainbow was gone 10 minutes later, and reality returned to the winners-only Mercedes Championships, which has its smallest field ever because four guys didn't show up.
 
The pot of gold was never there.
 
In this case, that would be Tiger Woods, whose six victories in 2005 included the majors. He decided to skip the tournament for the first time that he was fit to play. He said he needed an offseason after playing five times in five weeks after the PGA Tour's regular season ended in November.
 
Also absent is PGA champion and four-time winner Phil Mickelson, who chose not to play for the fifth straight year, saying he wanted to spend time with his family. That's Leftyspeak for 'I just don't want to play.'
 
Retief Goosen, who once said the best way to start a season was holding a drink with a flower in it, is home with his family in South Africa. Padraig Harrington broke through on the PGA Tour last year with two victories, but he declined his invitation to paradise to recharge from an emotional year.
 
No one has a problem with Harrington staying in Ireland. His father, a former policeman, was diagnosed with cancer after Harrington won the Honda Classic, and died not long after he won the Barclays Classic. No one needs time off to reflect and find closure more than Harrington.
 
And frankly, no one would miss the other stars if the biggest one -- Woods -- had decided to play.
 
The immediate reaction from some of his peers was that was one less player to beat for the $1.08 million first prize, the Mercedes-Benz S500 and a ticket back for next year.
 
'I text messaged Tiger and said, 'No Hawaii for you, more cash for me,' Mark Calcavecchia said.
 
'From a selfish standpoint, that's two people who you know you'd have to beat,' David Toms said, referring to Woods and Mickelson, even though Lefty has never broken 70 on the Plantation course.
 
Both, however, saw a bigger picture.
 
There was a time not long ago when the best in golf were underpaid, especially compared with utility infielders or backup centers who logged five minutes of playing time. When the Mercedes Championships first came to Kapalua in 1999, David Duval won by nine shots and established himself as the best player in the world. He earned $468,000.
 
Now, one can only wonder if the players have become fat and sassy.
 
This is nothing new, of course.
 
Mickelson skipped the Tour Championship and its $6.5 million purse. And five years ago, when a $5 million purse meant something, a dozen Americans didn't go to Spain for a World Golf Championship. They were offered a charter flight, free lodging at a luxurious hotel in San Roque, five days on a picturesque course with views of the Mediterranean and the Rock of Gibraltar, and $30,000 for last place.
 
The Mercedes Championships is not much different.
 
Players are given a free room at the Ritz-Carlton, where it seems every corridor has a red carpet. Tournament host Gary Planos took a morning off to drive Toms and his son to the hill country to hunt pheasant. Others were ferried to the Big Island for a corporate outing.
 
'Obviously, money is not an issue,' Calcavecchia said. 'They don't need the money, which is nice to be in that position. But it's just golf, you know? It's not a marathon. It's not the Ironman out here, swim 26 miles or something. It's just golf. Take next month off.'
 
They could do that. They could skip the whole year except for four big weeks. The tour likes to say its players are independent contractors, and Woods misses more tournaments than he plays.
 
But there are some tournaments where players should feel an extra sense of obligation, this being one of them. It's not easy winning on the PGA Tour, and if you don't believe that, check out the guest registry at the Ritz. Only 11 players qualified who were in the field last year.
 
Bart Bryant had knee surgery two days after winning the Tour Championship, and they cleaned out more cartilage than he expected. The recovery took a little longer, and Bryant could have used two extra weeks to get ready.
 
'But how can you not be here?' he said with a big smile.
 
Mercedes is still deciding whether to sponsor the event the next four years, and the absence of Woods and Mickelson is not helping negotiations. And while there are four fewer players to beat, there is a buzz missing.
 
'It's going to be a great event -- it always is and always will be,' Bryant said. 'But for those four guys not to be here, even as a player it feels like there's a little something missing.'
 
Brad Faxon wasn't supposed to be here. He had knee surgery to repair torn ligaments in September wasn't supposed to play until February, but his victory at Hartford was his first in four years. No way he was missing this.
 
Maybe that's the problem.
 
Woods and Mickelson have 73 victories between them. Throw in Goosen and Harrington, and the four MIAs represent 27 percent of the tournaments last year. The PGA Tour could use a good start to its season, and it's not asking much for its stars to take one for the team.
 
A year ago, all the talk was about the Big Four.
 
Sadly, the Big Four this week takes on a new meaning.
 
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