Par 5 Questions for the Sony Open


Five questions setting the agenda for the Sony Open ...

Does this week’s first full-field PGA Tour event mark the real start of 2011?

Golf never actually begins when the schedule says it begins.

It’s confusing and subjective, really, but it seems it’s always been that way.

Ryan Palmer
Ryan Palmer is the defending champion of the Sony Open. (Getty Images)
For some tour pros of the not-so-distant past, the Florida Swing traditionally marked the real start of the year, the time when the rust was off and the heavyweight competition that mattered most was fully underway.

When Tiger Woods came along and settled into his schedule, it began feeling like the season began in San Diego at Torrey Pines in Woods’ traditional season opener.

For others, even today, the real start of the real competition that really matters comes with the drive down Magnolia Lane at the Masters in April.

Now, for the first time, it’s feeling like the season won’t truly begin in the United States at all, that the real start of the tournament golf season is moving with the power shift to Europe and it’s growing star power. It feels like 2011 tournament golf will get its big-bang start next week with the opening of the European Tour’s Middle East Swing. In fact, if Europe’s rise continues, we may one day hear an entirely new saying:  “The real season begins in Abu Dhabi.”

The Sony Open could see some strong storylines develop this week, just as the Hyundai Tournament of Champions did last weekend, but it won’t compare to the anticipation building in Abu Dhabi, where four of the top five players in the world rankings are scheduled to play.

Lee Westwood, the new world No. 1, will make his 2011 start in Abu Dhabi. So will Phil Mickelson. All four reigning major championship winners are committed to teeing it up together next week. Graeme McDowell, who’s strong start at Hyundai is making some folks wonder if he will rise to No. 1 before the year is over, will join rising star Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen. Rory McIlroy’s is on the entry list. Paul Casey and Padraig Harrington also are expected to be in that field’s All-Star contingent.

The Sony Open may deliver a script as good as the Hyundai Tournament of Champions did, but tournament golf is a lot like Broadway. Like it or not, the stars trump the script, and Abu Dhabi’s marquee will feature the year’s first star-studded cast.

And if the world rankings remain as they are, the first showdown of the No. 1 (Westwood) vs. No. 2 (Woods) players in the world will also come in Europe at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic Feb. 10-13.
What proven winner steps up this week?

A swarm of rookies is eager to make a start at the Sony Open, but these rookies will soon learn Waialae Country Club’s no place for breakthroughs.

It’s a puzzle that won’t easily be solved by rookies or winless veterans.

The Honolulu event’s crowned a first-time winner just twice in the last 20 years. Jerry Kelly’s the last to break through there, earning his maiden victory in ’02. John Morse earned his first and only PGA Tour title there in ’95.

Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk are the highest ranked players in the field at Nos. 6 and 7 in the world rankings, respectively. They’re also good fits at Waialae.

Stricker’s yet to win at Sony, but he’s finished T-4 or better there three of the last four seasons. He had four rounds in the 60s while finishing third last year. Furyk won at Waialae in ’96 and has five finishes of T-7 or better there. Ryan Palmer returns as the defending champ in search of his fourth PGA Tour title.
Who’s the most touted rookie to watch?

Jamie Lovemark is among two dozen rookies in the season opener, and he comes with the best pedigree.

Lovemark finished atop the Nationwide Tour’s money list last year even though he was its youngest player. He won the NCAA individual title as a freshman at USC and also claimed the Jack Nicklaus Award as national Player of the Year in his first collegiate season. In his first season as a pro late in ’09, he nearly won the Open, losing out to Troy Matteson in a three-way playoff that included Rickie Fowler.
Who’s the best new story?

That’s easily Joseph Bramlett, who last month became the first player of African-American descent to make it through Q-School in 25 years.

Bramlett, 22, will be tested by more than the PGA Tour’s tough course setups and fierce competition. He’ll be tested by the nature of the spotlight that will come with telling his story at most every tour stop.

“The Next Tiger?” That was the headline on a Philadelphia Inquirer story after Bramlett earned his PGA Tour card.

Like Tiger Woods, Bramlett’s a big hitter who followed in Woods’ footsteps to Stanford, where Bramlett graduated last summer with a degree in communications. But even beyond the obvious angles, Bramlett’s a good story in what he’s overcome. He missed 20 months over a two-year period after his sophomore year with right wrist injuries.

Bramlett’s rookie year is larger than most rookies. That’s because there is more than golf playing out. There’s a special story.
Who will get DQ’d or hurt this week?

Strange rules snafus among elite players seem to be a growing epidemic with the phenomenon spilling into 2011 and last week’s disqualification of Camilo Villegas at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Who’s next? Hold onto your DVR, because somebody’s bound to see something and call in an allegation.

Strange injuries were also a theme last week. First, we learned Zach Johnson would be playing with a hole cut into the right toe of his golf shoes to alleviate the pain from an infected toe. He hurt himself scrambling to put out a small fire during a family vacation in the Grand Caymans before going to Hawaiii. Then we learned Hyundai defending champ Geoff Ogilvy would be withdrawing after he gashed his right index finger on a reef while swimming and needed 12 stitches. And then there was the Robert Garrigus’ scare. He reported hurting his shoulder in Hyundai’s third round while pumping his fist in an overly excited celebration, though he played through it well in forcing a Sunday playoff that he ended up losing to Jonathan Byrd.

Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell