Season Begins Off-Kilter

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The New Year in golf arrived a little bit like your 30-foot lag putt that stops 10 feet short of the hole: All of a sudden youre playing defense just to make par.
 
Im referring to news that John Daly will serve the first months of 2009 under the uncompromising terms of a six-month suspension handed down by PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
 
Mercedes-Benz Championship
Kapalua will host the season-opener on the PGA Tour this week. (Getty Images)
Meanwhile, the Tour season begins Thursday with one of the most distinctive and photogenic events of the year: The elite-field Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii, played on a gorgeous Crenshaw and Coore golf course built just up the bluff from the sparkling Pacific Ocean on the side of a lovely and verdant Maui mountain.
 
The only problem is the four highest-ranked players in the world ' Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington ' won't be there for a variety of reasons, some more legitimate than others.
 
Daly still gets to play, but his legion of diehard fans will have to track his progress in Europe until mid-year. And two weeks of Tour pros in Hawaii will produce plenty of quality golf and pretty pictures for all those cold-climate Americans back on the mainland cursing their way through the throes of another harsh winter.
 
Its just that the news of Daly wearing out his welcome with the bosses in Ponte Vedra and the absence of the best and brightest in Kapalua, for the moment, has golf a little bit off balance. Kind of like what Utah did to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl if you follow college football.
 
And it didnt need to be this way.
 
Lets start with Daly: His critics are saying the suspension should have been longer. I say it should have come earlier.
 
If you have ever been around Daly, you will find him impossible to dislike. But the alcohol-fueled incidents that have littered his off-the-course history have been pardoned too many times. Thats what happens when you win two majors because you have soft hands and a driver that leaves a vapor trail. In the case of Daly, an Arkansan, you become a rural legend.
 
And too much enabling has been allowed. It was encouraging to hear Dalys agent, Bud Martin, say that Daly needs to walk the walk ' not just talk the talk ' in the wake of the suspension and Dalys promises of better behavior. JD is also going to need a lot more tough love if he is going to resurrect a career in tatters and a game in shambles. He will be 43 in April. Time is short.
 
There were innocent bystanders in all of this (see the sidebar on the Daly Domino Effect). The tournament directors who were hoping to pump up ticket sales by giving Daly a sponsors exemption are, at least for the first five or six months of the season, out of luck. Yes, Daly is still a draw.
 
As for the Mercedes-Benz Championship: It needs to change its qualification standards. Right now you have to win an official Tour event to qualify. The size of the field is typically in the 30s.
 
This tournament is descended from the old Tournament of Champions concept. And its title sponsors have always rolled out a spectacular welcome mat for its participants.
 
Woods is recovering from knee operation. Garcia is gearing up for the Race to Dubai on the European Tour. Mickelson traditionally re-tools his game in California this time of year and Harrington is probably smart to remain resting after his whirlwind Player of the Year campaign in 2008.
 
So why not let more players in the field? Why not keep the winners plus anybody who finished the previous year in, say, the top 50 in the world rankings? The field would still be elite. And it would still be small enough that getting everybody around each day before darkness would not be a problem.
 
This is not a new idea. But the climate in professional golf today is more directly tied to the world economy than at any time since the Great Depression. And professional golf needs to re-explore options and re-invent solutions whenever, and wherever, it can.
 
Ill be rooting for Daly this year. Hes not a bad guy but he is a bit of a tortured soul. His sport just needs him to clean up his act. His personality will always be there.
 
And while were at it, lets thank our stars that the names of golfs best players arent regularly found on police blotters. Other sports should be so lucky.
 
What would be so bad about a New Years resolution from each of the worlds top-ranked 30 players to enter at least one event in 2009 that they have not played in previously?
 
The title sponsors that have been loyal to a Tour that has made millionaires out of hundreds of players deserve better. And the Tour that has provided the format for Dalys legend deserves a little more in the way of reliability from him when he returns.
 
Related Links:
  • Daly Domino Effect
     
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