Season Starts a Little Early for Some

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KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The sun rose Monday morning to find a Kapalua crew doing its best to make sure the Plantation course was up to par for Thursdays first round of the Mercedes Championships, which will officially begin the 2003 PGA Tour season.
 
But while the crew beat the sun to work, even the workers were following in the spike marks of some of this weeks participants.
 
A few of the players in the exclusive field of 2002 tour winners were on site earlier than normal. A glance down the range Saturday morning saw the likes of Jeff Sluman, Shigeki Maruyama and, of course, Vijay Singh pounding balls.
 
Rocco Mediate was already out on the course with friends.
 
Some, like Englands Luke Donald, have been on the tropical paradise that is Maui for nearly a week now.
 
This event is more than the lid-lifter to the 2003 campaign. Its more than players trying to get a jump-start on those not in attendance. Its a relaxing and utterly enjoyable week (or more) sprinkled in with a few rounds of competitive golf.
 
Monday marked the beginning of the work week for most. Players made their ways to the practice range and greeted one another with the expected 'How ya doin and 'Happy New Year'.
 
There were 38 different winners on the PGA Tour last year, 36 of which are here on the island. The two exceptions: the top-2 ranked players in the world.
 
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are absent. Woods had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in December and will likely be out of commission until February. Mickelson is at home with his family. Following a hectic off-season schedule, the left-hander is spending time with his wife, who is expecting their third child in April, and two daughters.
 
Family is also a big part of the Mercedes Championships experience. 'Bringem if Youve Gotem' seems to be the mantra. Got a wife, bring her. Got a girlfriend, bring her. Got children, bring them. Even Chris DiMarcos dad was observing on the practice range.
 
But while there are several distractions this week ' the beauty, the exotic foods, the countless recreational activities, the appeasement of family with all of the above ' there is the matter of a $1 million first-place check on offer.
 
Sergio Garcia was the benefactor a year ago, when the payout was a measly $720,000. He shot 64 on Sunday to overcome a three-stroke overnight deficit.
 
The 22-year-old Spaniard is one of only two past winners in the field. Jim Furyk won in 2001, and earned a return trip in 03 with his victory in last years Memorial Tournament.
 
However, its the number of first-timers on hand that stands out. Half of the field is making their maiden starts in the Mercedes.
 
There were a record 18 first-time winners on tour last season. In addition to the new blood, Nick Price is returning for the first time in four years, while Gene Sauers is making his first trip since 1990 and Dan Forsman since 1993. That was before the Mercedes moved to Hawaii in '99. It was at La Costa from 1969 through 1998.
 
Only four of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are competing: Els, Garcia, Retief Goosen and Singh.