Big names add spark to early West Coast events

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Rumors of the West Coast swing’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

If last week’s left coast kickoff is any indication, concerns that a crowded dance card later this year with golf’s return to the Olympic Games and last season’s relocation of the WGC-Match Play would leave the swing, well, on a participation island were unfounded.

The West Coast, the theory went, would suffer as players would bank a few off weeks before what promises to be a hectic summer – consider that after the U.S. Open top players will face a 16-week stretch with 10 “must-play” events, including two majors (Open Championship and PGA Championship) in a three-week run.

Making things even more dire was the Match Play’s move last year to May. The WGC, which had anchored the West Coast swing, was a prime draw for Europeans to venture to this side of the transatlantic divide.

But the reality, at least based on last week’s field at Kapalua and an unofficial survey of top players, paints a much-more optimistic picture for the West Coast.

The Hyundai Tournament of Champions enjoyed its best tee sheet since 2005 with six of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, including No. 1 Jordan Spieth and No. 2 Jason Day.

Nor does it seem the winners-only event will be a cameo for the game’s marquee.

Spieth, who has been guarded about his schedule, gave a glimpse of what we can expect.

“I'm not sure if I'm supposed to or allowed to voice [his schedule] right now,” he said on Sunday at Kapalua. “But I'll be back at Pebble Beach and I'll be at L.A. and I'll be back to Tampa.”

It’s not a huge surprise Spieth will play the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am the second week of February given his status as an AT&T spokesman, but the addition of the Northern Trust Open to his starting lineup was encouraging.

After the Tournament of Champions, the Los Angeles stop may be the year’s most-improved field with Spieth, who tied for fourth place last year at Riviera Country Club, joined by Rory McIlroy, currently the world’s third-ranked player.

The Farmers Insurance Open, traditionally the unofficial start of the season for many of the top players in previous years, also has an impressive list of early commitments, including defending champion Day, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson.

Even Kevin Kisner, who has admitted he’s not a “West Coast guy,” will make a few starts, including the year’s first two starts in Hawaii and the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

“I think I made two cuts in my career on the West Coast before,” he said last week. “There's no reason to go. I don't have to do it anymore, so I don't need to beat my head against the wall trying to beat these guys on courses I know I can't.”

This week’s Sony Open, which has traditionally been one of the West Coast’s weaker fields, includes 22 of the 32 players who teed it up last week in Maui.

Among those who made the short hop to Oahu were Open champion Zach Johnson; while Adam Scott, who didn’t make a PGA Tour start until Bay Hill last year, will make his 2016 debut at Waialae.

Much of this improved participation seems to be the byproduct of changing priorities among the game’s young champions.

The perceived lack of star power at West Coast stops is largely based on Tiger Woods, who from 2000-10 condensed his starts out west.

In 2000 and ’01, the then-world No. 1 played five times annually on the West Coast (that included the Match Play before its exodus to the early summer), but that number dropped to four from ’02 through ’05, and from ’07 to ’09 he played just twice each year out west.

Yet where Woods subscribed to a less-is-more approach to scheduling, the likes of Spieth, Day and McIlroy have embraced a more inclusive docket, be that on the West Coast or around the globe.

McIlroy will get his year underway at next week’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on the European Tour before shifting his focus to the United States. Similarly, Spieth will also play the Abu Dhabi stop as well as the Singapore Open at the end of January before closing out the West Coast in Los Angeles.

Whatever the changing motivations among the game’s elite, the result is a West Coast that’s not nearly as wanting as some thought it would be.