Bunker Shots All for One


Blasting into the week ahead, a totally Hawaiian affair ...

Sony Open in Hawaii

Pros born in the Tiger Woods’ era were beneficiaries of a financial windfall.

Woods helped make so many of his fellow pros rich.

Nine PGA Tour pros made $1 million or more in official money winnings the first year he teed it up as a pro in 1996.

Last season, 91 of them earned $1 million or more.

There was a curse to being born in the Woods’ era, though. Paul Azinger said it back when Woods put a choke hold on the No. 1 spot in the world rankings. He said it had to be depressing for gifted players of Woods’ generation to know they had virtually no shot at being No. 1 during their careers.

With Woods so deep in hiding, his throne looks vulnerable for the first time in almost five years.

Geoff Ogilvy might not have been the first player to sense an unexpected opening, but he was the first to voice it.

Before winning the SBS Championship last week, Ogilvy wondered aloud about the possibility that a new No. 1 could emerge this season.

If Woods doesn’t return by the Masters, it becomes a real possibility, with Official World Golf Ranking guardians estimating that Woods’ loss of rankings points could make him open to toppling as early as June, should he not add to his totals.

“I never really thought about it,” Steve Stricker, No. 3 in the world, said at last week’s season-opener.

The sense that an opportunity to be No. 1 is actually possible won’t take hold until Woods begins missing events he typically plays. If he’s out for the San Diego Open in two weeks, his traditional season-opener, and the Accenture Match Play Championship in five weeks, an event he has won three times, we’ll see his enormous lead in ranking points begin to shrink. If he skips the CA Championship at Doral and Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, sites where he has combined to win nine times, there will be some intrigue. If he bypasses the Masters in April, his fall as No. 1 may feel imminent.

As for now, we’re still waiting for the PGA Tour season to feel like it has started in earnest.

The Sony Open in Hawaii this week is the first full-field event of the year, but Stricker is the only player among the top-10 in the world rankings entered. Six of the top 20 are scheduled to tee it up. The field, as it did last week, will feature all four reigning major championship winners

Stance: John Daly irritated some golf observers last week when he chastised Bob Hope Classic organizers for rejecting his request for a sponsor’s exemption. He hasn’t, after all, been a factor in a PGA Tour event since 2005, when he finished second to Tiger Woods at the WGC-American Express Championship. The last of his five PGA Tour titles was in ’04. He has missed the cut or withdrawn in 30 of his last 47 PGA Tour starts. He’s No. 427 in the world. There are good reasons Hope officials passed on Daly. Still, with the Sony Open granting him a sponsor’s exemption this week, Daly has a chance to show them they gave up on him too early. You know other tournament directors will be watching to see if Daly has any magic left to give them.

Takeaway: In his weekly diary on his Web site, Ernie Els wrote that he’s cutting down his international travel this year and will focus more on PGA Tour events. He’s planning to play eight PGA Tour events before the Masters without a trip overseas. In fact, he won’t play his first overseas event until the BMW PGA Championship in May. That was his fourth overseas event last year. He’s cutting the Qatar Masters, Dubai Desert Classic and Ballantine’s Championship in South Korea off of the first half of his schedule from last season. Els tees it up as a 40-year-old for the first time in a PGA Tour event this week. He turned 40 after the Presidents Cup in October. You know Els wants a green jack before he retires, and Waialae is the kind of place that can rekindle memories of his best form. He won there in 2003 and ’04. Vijay Singh also will be looking to get off to a good start after knee surgery early last year set up a disappointing season.

Bunker shot: Winning in his debut as a PGA Tour member is asking too much, but Rickie Fowler could inject some healing power into the start of a season that badly needs some medicinal remedy. Fowler’s popularity would explode with a victory early in this season. It would be more than a nice diversion from the dreary Woods’ episode. It would be confirmation that Fowler’s a star in the making.

Wendy’s Champions Skins Game

The silly season isn’t over yet, not for the Champions Tour, and that’s something to be thankful for if you still enjoy seeing the legends of the game play.

Fred Couples won’t make his official Champions Tour debut until next week’s Mitsubishi Electric Championship in Hawaii, but he unofficially becomes a senior circuit member this weekend when he teams with Nick Price at the Wendy’s Champions Skins Game. Jack Nicklaus teams with Tom Watson and Gary Player teams with Loren Roberts. Fuzzy Zoeller and Ben Crenshaw are back as defending champions. The event will be played Saturday and Sunday at Ka’anapali Golf Resort’s Royal Ka’anapali Course on the island of Maui. There’s no live TV with airing delayed until the February 27-28 weekend. It’s an alternate-shot team event with a $770,000 purse.

Stance: Couples is capable of bringing a jolt of new excitement to the Champions Tour. His big swing and charisma will make golf fans pay more attention to the senior circuit, if he plays enough, because he’s still interested in playing PGA Tour events. With Woods missing from the PGA Tour, there’s an opportunity to ratchet up the senior circuit’s appeal.

Takeaway: The Champions Tour welcomes a strong freshman class this year. Couples isn’t the only appealing player coming aboard. Paul Azinger and Corey Pavin are already eligible for the Champions Tour. Mark Calcavecchia becomes eligible June 12 and Kenny Perry on Aug. 10.

Bunker shots: One of the charms of golf is that we can still watch Nicklaus and Watson compete together even though Nicklaus turns 70 on Jan. 21 and Watson turned 60 last fall. They’re worth watching just to relive the memories and hear their stories, but Watson showed he still has game nearly winning the British Open last summer and Nicklaus didn’t fare badly in an exhibition that included Woods at the Memorial last spring.