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No true off-season in golf

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Keegan Bradley bounded down the steep hill leading from Sherwood Country Club to the practice putting green late Tuesday like this week’s Chevron World Challenge was the first day of the school year.

“When I get back out here it is fun to see the guys. It’s like a second family,” the rookie gushed.

Moments later a weary-looking Hunter Mahan trudged his way up the same incline looking every bit the grizzled veteran.

“I’d like an offseason,” said Mahan, who is finishing his eighth year on the PGA Tour and his 28th event this season. “I’ve thought about that in different ways. It’s your job but at some point in the future if I had a family I could see myself saying, ‘You know what, I’m going to take a couple months off and I’m going to go travel.’

“It would be weird because people wouldn’t know what you’re doing, but I’ve totally thought about doing different things and taking some time off.”

To those in America’s northern states who are inching toward a long, cold winter Mahan’s take on pro golf’s nonexistent off-season may sound blasphemous but his assessment is neither insular nor misplaced.

Unlike baseball and football, which both feature prolonged off-seasons that in many ways feed the popularity of both sports, golf’s “break” is barely a blip. In fact, after next week’s Shark Shootout in south Florida be careful not to blink – you may miss it.

Bradley, for example, will play this week in California, next week at Greg Norman’s personal member-member and start anew the first week of January at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions followed by the Sony Open in Hawaii.

That’s two weeks to retool, tinker and turn it all around in time for 2012, a logistical truth that goes a long way to explaining why prolonged seasons of success, like that enjoyed by Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus before him, are so rare.

Without question, much of this off-season overkill is self-inflicted. No-cut events like this week’s Chevron World Challenge are akin to free money and no one would ever mistake a week in southern California for heavy lifting.

“I like to compete so, I’d say from a rest standpoint and for practice it would be nice to have a month and a half off. But we go from here to Hawaii. It’s not a horrible thing,” Nick Watney said. “It’s hard to get on a plane sometimes at the end of the year, but it’s in our blood. In three weeks we’ll be rested enough and be ready to get back at it.”

Not all of golf’s off-season is silly, however. Even this week at Sherwood, the money is nice but the world ranking points that are up for grabs may be worth even more.

Even for top players, there is an ever-present drive to remain inside the top 50 in the world ranking. So players like Watney play the Chevron and last month’s WGC-HSBC Champions to pad their points almost as much as the bank account.

For Watney, following China there was the Australian Open, dubbed by U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples a must-play for the members of his team, followed by the matches at Royal Melbourne.

It adds up to an off-season that is anything but, the ultimate Catch 22 for the Tour’s successful. The goal is to play well enough to qualify for events like the Presidents Cup and Chevron, but it is a membership to a club that is not entirely conducive to prolonged success.

Following the 2008 season, Watney took nearly three months off, while Mahan didn’t hit a shot that counted on Tour for almost as long. The result was breakout years for both players in 2009.

“I was fresh and a little rusty,” Mahan said. “I would do it differently next time, but I will definitely do it again.”

Pro golf’s shadow of an off-season is probably toughest on the fans who never have a chance to miss the game. The day pitchers and catchers report to spring training is the highlight of any baseball fan’s year, while preseason ratings for the NFL have never been higher.

Contraction is never a good business model, but every fall it’s impossible to shake a simple thought – sometimes less really is more.


Catch live coverage of the Chevron World Challenge on Golf Channel and NBC: Thursday and Friday – 2:30PM ET on Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday – 12:30PM ET on Golf Channel, 3PM ET on NBC.