Season Starts with No Guarantees

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04 Mercedes ChampionshipsKAPALUA, Hawaii -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are absent by choice. So many others are not at the season-opening Mercedes Championships because they failed to meet the toughest criteria on the PGA Tour.
 
This is for winners only.
 
Golf offers no guarantees, and there is no better reminder than to scan the list of results at Kapalua last year to see who didn't make it back.
 
Vijay Singh
Vijay Singh is one of only eight players returning from the 2005 Mercedes field.
Ernie Els nearly won twice in Hawaii last year, but his season ended in July with surgery on his knee and no PGA Tour victories to his credit for the first time since 2001. Jonathan Kaye was on the verge of getting into a playoff at Kapalua until he muffed a chip on the final hole and finished second. He never came close to winning the rest of the year.
 
Mike Weir will have to wait two weeks to start his season. Zach Johnson, a promising rookie in 2004, went winless as a sophomore. Adam Scott won a tournament that didn't count. For all the fist pumps and theatrical moments for Chris DiMarco, none included posing with a trophy.
 
Of the 31 players in the field at Kapalua last year, only eight of them will be teeing it up Thursday on the Plantation course to start the new season. Throw in three guys who are taking this week off -- Woods, Mickelson and Retief Goosen -- and just more than one-third of the players were eligible.
 
'There were eight guys that played last year? That means 20 new guys? Wow,' said Brad Faxon, who is one of those 20 having won the Buick Championship for his first PGA Tour victory in four years. 'That just shows it's harder to win. And there are a few guys that aren't here that win a lot.'
 
There are 48 chances to get into the Mercedes Championships. Woods and Mickelson combined to take away 10 of those opportunities, including three of the majors. Vijay Singh won four times, and other multiple winners were Justin Leonard, Padraig Harrington, Kenny Perry and Bart Bryant, all of whom won twice.
 
If the veterans looks over their shoulder, they will find 12 players at Kapalua here for the first time. That list includes Sean O'Hair, a Q-school graduate a year ago, and Jason Gore, who went from nowhere to the final group of the U.S. Open and back to nowhere, until his meteoric rise to the big leagues.
 
Gore is new, but he gets it.
 
'I was a little worried when the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve, going into a new year,' Gore said. 'That's what makes golf a great game. You're only as good as the last shot you hit. You move on from there, and hopefully get off to a good start this week, see what happens.'
 
The great thing about golf is that no one knows where it all will lead.
 
At this time a year ago, Woods had gone 15 months without a stroke-play victory and was a distant second to Singh in the world ranking. The hype was the Big Five -- Woods, Singh, Mickelson, Els and Goosen -- and who would emerge as the best player in golf.
 
By year end, Woods had six victories, two majors and an overwhelming margin at No. 1.
 
The new season gets under way at Thursday with the attention already shifting to several storylines for 2006, from the return to traditional major championship sites like Winged Foot (U.S. Open) and Medinah (PGA Championship), to who makes the Ryder Cup team, to whether Els can bounce back and the 42-year-old Singh can hang on.
 
The immediate question is whether Stuart Appleby can become the first player in 50 years to win this elite tournament three straight times. The only other player was Gene Littler, from 1955-57, when it was played at Desert Inn Country Club in Las Vegas and appropriately called the Tournament of Champions.
 
'I know what I have to do,' Appleby said. 'I know how to play, I know what sort of golf is required to win here. Having Phil and Tiger not here, Retief, is a good thing for me. Maybe they're a little scared.'
 
Despite his success, Appleby will have to get used to the new greens on the Plantation course, with grass that stands taller so it can be cut shorter. They are smoother than ever, and capable of being faster than ever, although they still have the severe breaks toward the island of Molokai on the horizon.
 
Among the injured are Faxon and Bryant, both coming off knee surgeries.
 
Faxon's was more severe, as he had torn ligaments in his left knee repaired in September. Faxon was supposed to be out until at least Pebble Beach, but when a player loves Kapalua like he does, and when he goes four years without winning, the motivation to return is a little stronger.
 
And he already is looking ahead.
 
'When you're here, you want to be here the next year,' Faxon said.
 
It all begins to unfold Thursday morning on a course perched atop the hills overlooking the Pacific, where it is not unusual to see humpback whales breeching below, sharing the blue waters with surfers.
 
The Mercedes Championship doesn't have Woods or Mickelson or Goosen -- in fact, only three of the top 10 in the world ranking are at Kapalua -- but it has 28 guys hungry to start the year off right, and guaranteeing a spot next year.
 
'This is where you want to start out,' said Mark Calcavecchia, back at Kapalua for the first time in four years. 'Everybody here won a tournament. That's a big thing nowadays.'
 
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