KAPALUA, Hawaii - The start of a new season doesn’t feel much different from the old one.
Nine players - that’s one-third of the 27-man field at Kapalua - were together only a month ago at the Chevron World Challenge. A week later, eight players 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 of Champions 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, the landscape in golf was different. The Tour Championship ended the first week in November, and the majority of players disappeared until the start of the new year. The elite would only play in the silly season at events like the Skins Game or the Shark Shootout. Some chased appearance money in Asia.
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 have had 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’t start his 2011 season until the third week in February at Riviera. Graeme McDowell tried to take a four-week break in February.
Toms showed that players can make their offseason as long as they want it to be. Even so, he worries that such time is getting harder to find in a global game that relies so heavily on the world ranking.
“For guys that want to get in big tournaments, if they stop at Disney or even before that, they can lose so many spots,” he said. “I’ve taken off three months and lost 20 spots in the ranking. And you’ve got big tournaments early in the 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 in 2010, Toms was No. 62 in the world. He took off three months, returning at the Bob Hope Classic, and had slipped all the way to No. 84. He did not get in the Match Play Championship or the Cadillac Championship that year, missing two playing opportunities in World Golf Championships.
This year was a little different.
Toms chose to miss the biggest college football game of the year—Alabama against his beloved LSU Tigers - and flew halfway around the world to China for the HSBC Champions. He also played the Australian Open in the week before the Presidents Cup in Australia.
“I went to China trying to improve that ranking; I would never have gone over there,” he said. “I played in the Australian Open because there were world ranking points there. That’s stuff that I would never do. So what’s going to happen now is I’ll play some, and then I’ll need some time off during our season instead of taking time off the other way.
“So you have options, but you don’t,” he said. “If you want to maintain a certain 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 2001 season and took nearly two months off toward the end of the season, even to the point of risking his spot in the Tour Championship for the top 30 on the money list. He narrowly made it. Walking on the practice range one day at Champions Golf Club in Houston, Tiger Woods saw him and said, “Welcome back out of retirement.”
It’s not much different now. Stricker took off nearly two months before the Presidents Cup. Part of that was to rest a weakened left arm, though he had planned only one tournament between the Tour Championship and Presidents Cup even if he had been healthy.
“It’s tough to find the time,” Stricker said. “You can play all year long, but I think you’ve still got to find the time. You’ve got to still get away, find the time where you can set the clubs down for a little while and get refreshed and ready to go for another year. Because it’s a long year, and there’s so many big things at the end of it all that you want to make sure you’re fresh and still able to play at the end.”
Stricker is taking four weeks off when he finishes next week in the Sony Open. He’ll return at Riviera.
As much grumbling as there is about the weak field at Kapalua, it’s a product of where players live, how they build a worldwide schedule and when they can find time to take a break.
Donald played three times in December. McIlroy played five times over the last two months. Masters champion Charl Schwartzel is the defending champion next week in the Joburg Open in his native South Africa.
This is all new for Keegan Bradley, a rookie who figured his season would end 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 for the 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 could play 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 continuation of the old year for others. All of them will take a break at some point, and when they do, there will be tournaments that wished they were playing.
Then again, golfers have no guaranteed income from tournaments. They are self-employed, independent contractors.
That much hasn’t changed.