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Season-opening epic a relic of the past

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Welcome to the 2015 golf year, which shouldn’t be confused with the 2015 season that has already started, nor compared with the big-bang beginnings of other sporting calendars. Mahalo to the good people of Maui for hosting the annual rainbow-infused, whale-outlined kickoff, but let’s face it: This is really more of a soft launch.

It wasn’t always this way.

Fifteen years ago this week, the year began with an epic battle against the backdrop of paradise. Millions of jealous snowbound fans huddled under blankets in prime time as two of the game’s superstars parried on their television screens. Tiger Woods eagled the final hole of regulation; Ernie Els matched him. Els birdied the first playoff hole; Woods matched him. Woods rolled in a 40-foot birdie on the second playoff hole, punctuated by his habitual massive fist pump; Els, finally, couldn’t match him.

The local Honolulu Star-Bulletin called it “The Duel of the Century,” a tongue-in-cheek paean to not just the first golf tourney of the new millennium, but the back-and-forth battle that erupted from within.

Its result was proof positive of Woods’ dominance – it was his fifth straight win dating to 1999 and his ninth in 12 starts – and epitomized the struggle for his fellow pros. It was becoming clearly apparent that even their best was no longer good enough.

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One day after the famed “Music City Miracle” and just hours following a Dan Marino-led fourth-quarter comeback, the tournament rocked the opening of sportscasts and back pages of newspapers around the country. It wasn’t just an event. It was a happening; it was an awakening; it was the biggest thing going on.

On the hierarchy of golf tournaments, the Mercedes Championship (now known as the Hyundai Tournament of Champions) ranked behind the four major championships and The Players and even the newly formed WGC events, but it was still an A-lister, its status secure as an enticing favorite for players ready to start anew and millions of fans looking to block their own winter doldrums for a little while.

All of which should leave us asking one question on the eve of this year’s edition of the opener: What happened?

The quick answer, of course, revolves around Woods. Moments after that momentous victory, he joked about already qualifying for the next go-round at Kapalua, promising, “I’ll be here next year.” And he was, for that one and each of the next four afterward. A decade ago, though, Woods flew home from a T-3 result and never returned.

It would be too easy, though, to place all of the credit for this tournament’s long-ago success and all of the blame for its current status on Woods. He didn’t even qualify for this week’s winners-only festivities; neither did old staples Els, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker.

Instead, the list of qualified players includes the likes of next-gen ballers Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer, each of whom is currently ranked in the top 12 on the world ranking – and each of whom opted to remain home this week.

It’s not just that the game’s best players are choosing to start their years elsewhere. It also serves as an exemplification of the state of today’s game. This week’s field owns a world ranking average of more than 15 spots higher than that of 15 years ago, just one simple statistical example of the parity which has enveloped the game.

Other factors have similarly contributed.

Three years ago, the PGA Tour curiously adopted a Monday finish – curious because the rationale was to avoid NFL playoff game conflicts, even though those conflicts didn’t previously exist; curious because the final round actually did conflict with the BCS Championship game; and curious because Sunday is the traditional day for tournament finales.

It also used to represent a true beginning. Not only is that no longer the case with the recent implementation of a wraparound schedule, but the old notion of a silly season has evolved – or devolved, depending on your viewpoint - into a 12-month period filled with world-class events. The last time most of the game’s best players gathered together was less than a month ago at the Hero World Challenge, mammoth paychecks and world ranking points included.

The world has changed in 15 years, and the golf world has changed along with it. That statement shouldn’t conjure any negative connotations, but those developments have left some shrapnel along the side of the winding road.

This annual opener used to be an event of grandiose proportions, gratifying a mid-winter prime-time audience with promises of the game’s best players competing in one of its most special tournaments. It remains a prime-time respite from the cold and snow, but over the last 15 years, that status has clearly been diminished.