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Players Get Rude Welcome to the PGA Tour Season

04 Mercedes ChampionshipsKAPALUA, Hawaii -- Justin Leonard took a quick shower and was headed to the airport for a flight home to Dallas when he saw David Toms at his locker and, in his own sarcastic way, wished him well at the next stop in Hawaii.
'I hear it's supposed to blow even harder next week,' Leonard said.
That was the last thing Toms needed to hear after getting kicked around in a PGA Tour season-opener that was played in paradise and felt, uh, much warmer.
It was only three years ago at the Mercedes Championships that players were begging for a challenge after Ernie Els set a PGA Tour record by winning at 31 under par in fast, calm conditions.
Now they're saying it's too hard.
The new greens on the Plantation Course at Kapalua were firmer and smoother than ever, so pure that PGA Tour rules official Jon Brendle thought there was a chance someone could go lower than Els. Then it kept raining overnight, the fierce trade winds arrived, and a working vacation became all work.
'I think they've blown it,' Kenny Perry huffed after a 77 in the third round. 'It's a little unfair. Everyone has to play it, but I don't think it's golf, in my opinion. Who wants to shoot 75 or 76 when that's the average score? I tell you what, it's shot my confidence.'
Beauty -- and in this case, a beast of a course -- was in the eye of the beholder.
Stuart Appleby brought his best golf to the Mercedes Championships and walked away with his third straight trophy by breaking par all four days to finish at 8-under 284, then beating Vijay Singh on the first playoff hole. Singh finally kept mistakes off his card and closed with a 66, nine shots better than the average score.
But it raised questions how the PGA Tour season should begin.
With quick greens that demanded the utmost precision, and gusts up to 40 mph, it felt like a U.S. Open at times. Most of the players were rusty from their time off, whether that was two weeks or two months. Appleby was the first to concede that no one was at his best last week.
'I walked off the second green and told people they need to go watch football,' said Toms, who was one shot out of the lead going into the weekend until rounds of 79-75 left him in a tie for 13th. 'Obviously, some guys are playing good. But to see pros in the teens over par starting the season? That's not a lot of fun.'
But no one wanted to see a winners-only tournament turn into the Bob Hope Classic, where 65 means losing ground.
'I think it's great,' said Brad Faxon, who opened with an 82, closed with a 74 and tied for 23rd at 17 over. 'A lot of people thought this course was too easy. I would think Mercedes would be a competitive tournament, not a 30-under romp. If 2 or 3 under is leading, you can have a handful of guys who can win.'
Even par would have been good enough for seventh place this year.
Carlos Franco shot that a year ago and finished last.
'Somebody is always going to play good,' said Fred Funk, who whose best round was a 76. 'The guys that complain are guys like me who aren't playing well, or not scoring well. You feel like you're hitting good shots and not getting rewarded. Right now, I feel like I'm not a good player. I shouldn't feel that way.'
Brendle, who was in charge of setting up the golf course, has heard this all before.
He empathizes with the players, but only to a point. It was obvious why the scores were so high, starting with wind so strong that Jim Furyk had a hard time standing up over his tee shot. The best story belonged to Perry. While hitting a provisional shot on the 12th hole, the wind blew his ball off the tee during his downswing. Unable to stop, he did his best to make contact, and dumped that 100 yards into the weeds.
Thankfully, he found his original ball and made par.
The Plantation showed a rare quality of allowing 31 under when it's calm, 8 under when it blows.
With new greens, Brendle had several options for pin placements, but he didn't use many of them because of the wind and tough conditions. He kept the speed of the greens slightly slower.
'I don't think it had anything to do with the golf course,' he said. 'It had to do with the weather. When the wind blows, it shakes these guys up. Jason Gore played bad. Stuart Appleby played good. Happens every week.'
Still posted late Sunday night on the PGA Tour's web site was a teaser that said, 'How could you not be excited at the start of 2006?' Next to that was a picture of Funk, who was excited to be done.
'There's a lot of pride out here,' Funk said. 'You don't expect this golf course to play that hard. It used to be that if you weren't playing well, you could always make some birdies. I've made two birdies all week.'
He said that on Saturday. He birdied the last hole Sunday to make it three.
Vaughn Taylor doesn't have much to say, but he seemed to have the right answer after steady improvement at Kapalua -- rounds of 74-73-72-71 -- left him tied for fourth.
Should the first event of the year be kind and gentle, or a test of survival?
'Playing well is a good way to start the year,' Taylor said. 'Hopefully, this will sharpen me up a little bit.'
Perry was so flustered that he said he would consider not returning next year if he was eligible. Mark Calcavecchia thought that was a little severe. After all, they're in Hawaii being treated like royalty. Last place paid $70,000. Every player got a free room at the Ritz-Carlton.
'I don't think anybody was expecting this kind of battle the first week of the year,' Calcavecchia said. 'It's a lot of work. But it's a great place to be. I'd love to be back next year.'
Related links:
  • Leaderboard - Mercedes Championships
  • Full Coverage - Mercedes Championship

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