New generation of stars restores TOC to prominence


KAPALUA, Hawaii – Not since the halcyon days before the game’s titans made the year’s leadoff event in Maui a “bye” week has there been so much firepower aligned at the Plantation Course.

For organizers of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions the New Year brought a new feel by way of a field that hasn’t been seen on this island in more than a decade.

This week’s tee sheet at Kapalua includes six of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, including Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the global lineup.

It’s the first time the world’s best player is starting his year at the limited-field, no-cut event since 2005, and has added up to the strongest field since then-Nos. 1 through 4 (Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, respectively) kicked off the year in Maui 11 years ago.

It’s a dramatic makeover for an event that’s felt more like a preseason exhibition than the Tour’s most elite club of winners. The tipping point for the Tournament of Champions began in the early 2000s, first when Phil Mickelson took the event off his dance card in 2002. The final blow was struck by Woods, who played Kapalua for the last time in 2005.

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Maybe it was the Kona winds or Bermuda grass greens with more grain than a Nebraska wheat silo or the diminishing returns of an expanding Tour schedule - whatever the reason, a trip to paradise lost its luster to the game’s most high-profile players.

But that aversion to sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and migrating whales made a generational U-turn this year.

Spieth, who emerged as the clubhouse leader in the game of musical chairs that ensued for the top spot in the world ranking last year, made it clear Tuesday that he has penciled the year-opener into his schedule for the foreseeable future.

“This is one that we strive to make each year, and if I am eligible to play in this tournament and [I don’t], I hope every single one of you [media] calls me and bashes me for it,” Spieth said Tuesday.

Day, who withdrew from last month’s Hero World Challenge and Franklin Templeton Shootout following the birth of his second child, seems to be following a similar script, having played the Tournament of Champions every year (2011, ’15 and ’16) he’s been eligible.

The only notable exceptions from this week’s leaderboard are Rory McIlroy, who has never played the opener as he prepares for the start of his season on the European Tour, and Justin Rose.

The only other players missing from the top 10 in the world are Henrik Stenson, who didn’t qualify, and Jim Furyk, who is recovering from a left-wrist injury.

Otherwise attendance has been nearly universal, with just four players (McIlroy, Rose, Furyk and Shane Lowry) who won last season skipping Kapalua.

For Davis Love III, who returned to the event for the first time since 2009 following his victory last fall at the Wyndham Championship, the buzz created by the improved field didn’t go unnoticed.

“It's exciting there's so many guys here,” Love said. “The top players are here. Obviously Jason and Jordan and all the guys that are hot right now are here. ... So it's exciting to be here with them.”

A portion of that turnout can be attributed to Spieth and Day’s dominance last season. The duo combined to win more than one-fifth of the Tour’s events last season (10 victories), while Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker (who are all playing this week) collected a half-dozen other starts from the 2014-15 season.

That, however, doesn’t diminish the impact the improved marquee has had on the opener, which has been hurt by weak fields and the creation of the Tour’s wraparound schedule two years ago.

Instead of opening day, the Tournament of Champions was bounced a half-dozen events into the schedule with the start of the wraparound lineup. A move to a Monday finish in recent years did little to help bolster the stop’s relatively weak field.

It turns out the only thing the Hyundai needed was the fresh perspective of youth.

Time is the ultimate judge. Perhaps Spieth and Day will hit the metaphorical wall after a few years and opt out of the Tour’s New Year’s bash. Maybe the new-car smell that makes the Hyundai seem like a must-play event right now fades and a week of rest back home takes precedence over a trip halfway around the world.

For now, however, the game’s emerging stars have given this one-time afterthought a new identity.

“This is definitely at the top of my list of goals to start the year every year here,” said Justin Thomas, who earned his spot in the Tournament of Champions by winning last fall’s CIMB Classic. “It's pretty relaxing, it's a great field and a great course, and I think it's pretty cool.” It seems all it took was a new generation to make Kapalua cool again.