Easing into the Season

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The Mercedes Championships played much like a major championship. The conditions were quite difficult, no one ever reached double digits under par, many of the top names were in contention, and Sergio Garcia wasn't a factor on Sunday.
 
It really had the feel of a U.S. Open, minus everyone complaining about the layout ' and minus the drama.
 
While the tournament was tightly contested throughout, and the top of the leaderboard featured names like Appleby and Campbell and Furyk and Singh, there wasnt a lot about which to get excited.
 
Some of it might have had to do with the absence of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, but there was more to it that just that.
 
Woods and Mickelson complained last year that the season is too long, and in a way they were right. The PGA Tour season is not too long; the golfing season is too long.
 
The final official tour event of 2005 concluded on Nov. 6. Had that really been it, we ' at least I ' would have been jonesing for the return of golf in 06. I would have needed a fix. Instead, there was the Franklin Templeton Shootout and the WGC-World Cup and the Target World Challenge and the Skins Game and the PGA Grand Slam of Golf. Not to mention the Father/Son Challenge and the Wendys 3-Tour Challenge and the Tommy Bahama Challenge. And events in China and Japan and South Africa and Australia.
 
It was an off-season overdose.
 
And when I returned to the office this past week I felt like I was in some kind of suffocating relationship. I just wanted to tell Golf: Hey, I think we need a break. Some time away from one another ' just a week, maybe. Its not you; its me. Actually, its you.
 
But this did turn out to be a pretty good tournament to kick-start the season. And now I think Im ready. Ready to make commitment to the 2006 season. If not this week, then maybe when they hit the mainland. Certainly by the Florida Swing.
 
Maybe I'm just bitter because my Cincinnati Bengals lost Sunday. Or maybe I'm just bitter because I didn't get to go to Maui (more likely). But while I wasnt geeked up about this past weeks tournament, I did find plenty things that provoked thought:
 
  • Being that the Plantation course played much like a major venue, will this be the year that Appleby nets a maiden major championship? And for that matter, will it be the year for Garcia? Though the two are separated by nine years in age (Garcia turns 26 Monday, by the way), the elder Appleby has competed in only seven more majors. Garcia has played in 29, Appleby 36. You could say that with such experience that its time for one or both of these two to finally win one. But first they have to start contending. Appleby lost in a four-man playoff in the 2002 Open Championship. That, however, is just one of three career top-10s for the Aussie in major competition, compared to 15 missed cuts. Garcia will point out that he has five top-5 finishes, two of which came last year. But in only two of those did he actually have a chance to win, the 1999 PGA and 2002 U.S. Open. In the other three, he finished an average of six strokes behind the winner.
     
  • Singh said Saturday evening that he felt like he had a good round in him for Sunday. He was right. Singh's 66 was the lowest score all week by three strokes, and one of only two sub-70 scores by the entire field. He said at the end of last year that he kind of coasted to the finish line, didn't put forth his normal 100-percent performance off the course. Refocused and rededicated ' he reportedly spent eight hours practicing on Christmas Day, he may be in store for another monster campaign. But this year is already looking more like '05 than '04. He had a chance to win last year's Mercedes, only to blow a 54-hole lead with a closing 74. He then blew chances to win The Honda and Bay Hill at the buzzer. This time, he lost yet again with a game-ending mistake.
     
  • Just about everybody with a forum to do so has offered up their opinion on whether or not Woods, Mickelson, Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington should have made the trip to Kapalua. I wont belabor the issue, but I do think they should have gone. Im aware that they are independent contractors and can pick and choose which events they want to play. But they should support the tour ' the one that has provided them with the lifestyle that affords them the luxury to pass on the opportunity for a $1.08 million paycheck ' by playing in a premiere event like this one ' especially considering Mercedes-Benz is undecided on whether or not they want to renew their sponsorship with the tour.
     
  • We know that Appleby is in the field for the 07 Mercedes. But who will join him in the winners-only event? You would have to think that Singh, Furyk, Garcia and David Toms will likely be back. But for most everyone else, its a complete toss-up. Michael Campbell, not being a PGA Tour member, will have difficulty earning a return trip, unless he should win another major or a WGC event. He was one of 11 first-timers in this years field. Of them, I would give the best chance for a repeat appearance to Lucas Glover, Geoff Ogilvy and Carl Pettersen.
     
  • You would have to think that Woods and Mickelson will again have the chance to turn down a trip to paradise. Goosen, too. It will be most interesting, however, to see if Goosens countryman, Ernie Els, can punch a ticket. Els, the 2003 Mercedes champion, missed 4 months last year due to knee surgery. He returned in December and promptly won in just his second start back. According to his website, Els is scheduled to compete in 18 tour events this season, but none until the Nissan Open in mid-February. Prior to Riviera, he is slated to play three consecutive tournaments in the Middle East, beginning in two weeks.
     
  • There were only 28 players in this weeks field, so it didnt take long to scan the list from top to bottom. Bringing up the rear on the final leaderboard were 05s two most compelling stories. Last year was like a Cinderella tale for Sean OHair and Jason Gore. It may now be 12:01 in the a.m. It will be very difficult for the two to match their precedent campaigns. Fortunately for both, they have a year of grace before they have to worry about holding onto their tour cards. This certainly isnt to say that these four rounds are a harbinger of things to come. Having talked with both players at the end of last season, it didnt seem like either one had planned on playing too much over the final two months. They likely entered this event with an accumulation of rust and just werent able to shake it under the trying conditions. Plus, Im sure that both were more interested in enjoying this experience than worrying about where they would ultimately finish.
     
  • Of course, the tour will next hop over to Oahu for the upcoming Sony Open. And, of course, Michelle Wie will be the center of attention. I understand that there are people unhappy about her inclusion, and plenty of others who feel saturated in Wie coverage. Well, get used to seeing her ' more and more and more of her. With two LPGA tournaments in Hawaii to start their season and the Kraft Nabisco Championship beginning at the end of March, youll be getting more Michelle over the first quarter of this year than you could ever have asked for. My advice: just sit back and enjoy it. Lets see what shes got.
     
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