The winners-only field for the SBS Championship, which starts on Thursday, has only 28 players. That matches the record for the smallest field since the tournament moved to the Plantation Course at Kapalua in 1999.
Defending champion Geoff Ogilvy is the only player at Kapalua who has won here before, a rarity at a regular tournament. Even more alarming is that only seven players from last year made it back to Maui by winning a PGA Tour event last year.
“Somewhat interesting, but the depth of our Tour is so strong that I can see that happened,” Steve Stricker said. “It’s just tough to win out here in general.”
Even when Woods was playing, golf was entering a cycle where no one was sure who might emerge as a potential star, and which stars would flame out. Could anyone have guessed the four major champions – Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Y.E. Yang – would be ranked outside the top 30 when they won? Or that Padraig Harrington, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas would go an entire season without winning?
“I think it’s an interesting time,” Ogilvy said. “Obviously, No. 1 in the world might be up for realistic grabs this year, depending on how it all takes shape. Phil (Mickelson) played fantastic at the end of last year. Phil’s years have always started unbelievably and have often petered out. Last year, he actually got better, which is good for him.”
Woods is out indefinitely as he tries to salvage his family from the fallout of his extramarital affairs. He last played Kapalua in 2005 even during good times. Mickelson has not played since he won the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, his second straight tournament that he won with Woods playing in the final group. Mickelson will start his season on Jan. 28 in San Diego.
What to expect in 2010?
“This could be wide open,” Stricker said. “I have a feeling Tiger will be back. He doesn’t need many events to get back to the top spot, whether it be in the FedEx Cup or money list or whatever. You never know. He could be out the whole year. I hope that he’s back sooner than later. But it does have that feel to start the season that it’s wide open.”
Stricker is coming off a career-best three victories that elevated him to No. 3 in the world, and even at 42, he doesn’t see himself slowing down this year. He expects Mickelson to have a big year, and Singh to return from nagging injuries.
Ogilvy has reason to put himself on a short list of players who could emerge. He already has won a major at the 2006 U.S. Open and three World Golf Championships, including the Match Play last year as he zoomed up the rankings, only to falter over the second half of the year. It only makes him admire how Woods has played at such a high level for so long.
“I think when I play my best, I can play with anyone,” Ogilvy said. “I have had periods that are a bit inconsistent where I can’t compete with anyone at all. Or I just play average. And I have to get rid of those periods.”
Some answers will begin to emerge in the first two weeks of the year on tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean, with the SBS Championship followed by a full field at the Sony Open, which is to include Singh and Ernie Els.
The immediate question is whose game is ready now.
No other PGA Tour event has a tougher qualification – nothing short of a victory. No other tournament might be easier to win, starting with the size of the field. Throw in the fact that some players haven’t played a tournament in two months, or are playing the Plantation Course for the first time.
With some players fresh from a long vacation, others sharp from playing overseas, it could be up for grabs – just like the season. Pat Perez was among those who didn’t see that as being any different from other years, even when Woods was playing.
“He wins six times, he plays 15,” Perez said. “There’s what, 38 events? So there’s always a lot up for grabs. I hope the people can see there is more to the Tour than just Tiger. We know how great he is. We know the whole thing. No one is questioning that. Maybe people will have a chance to say, ‘We are not watching Tiger all the time.’ We have to watch somebody else now while Tiger cleans up this mess. And there are some really good guys out there.”