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Injection of star power has revitalized the once-lackluster Tournament of Champions

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KAPALUA, Hawaii – Remember the days when the Sentry Tournament of Champions was so strapped for stars that the PGA Tour considered making a victory worth a two-year exemption into the event and even mulled transitioning the year-opener to a mixed-team tournament with the LPGA?

Yeah, me neither.

Those lean times seemed like a distant memory as play wrapped up on Saturday on the Plantation Course, with a leaderboard that was plucked straight from the Tour’s hope chest.

Gary Woodland maintained his advantage thanks to a 64-foot eagle putt at the 15th hole but those in pursuit are a who’s who of Tour stardom, with Rory McIlroy alone in second place, three strokes back, and Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson all among the top 10 heading into the final turn in Maui.

This year, 34 of the 37 players who qualified for Maui made the trip. (Kevin Na was forced to withdraw with a finger injury.) And if the rumor mill is to be believed Tiger Woods – who along with Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose skipped the event – was on the fence until the bitter end.

The winners of all four majors in 2018 – Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari and Patrick Reed – joined the party, along with eight of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking.

By comparison, just four years ago, the field of 34 didn’t include the winner of the U.S. Open or The Players (Martin Kaymer), The Open Championship or PGA Championship (McIlroy), or the world No. 1 (McIlroy). Only two of the top 10 players in the world bothered to make the trip over to Maui in 2015.

For the vast majority of the last two decades, the event was largely defined, fairly or not, by those who didn’t opt for tropical breezes and stunning vistas. There were the days when Woods and Mickelson – who have played Kapalua a combined 16 times in their careers – would regularly skip the charms of the year lid-lifter.

But those dark days seem like a lifetime ago. 

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The narrative began to change in 2014, when Jordan Spieth first made Maui an annual stop. His fellow next-gen types, including Thomas, followed his lead. They're making the most of what is essentially an all-star game with guaranteed money, FedExCup points and the competitive advantages of a limited-field event. For today’s stars, it’s simple math – beating 32 other guys is easier than going head to head with 155.

“I love coming over here. I love the golf course. It really suits me well. It allows me to hit a lot of drivers,” said Woodland, who padded his lead thanks to a 5-under 68 on Saturday. “This is obviously a short field. You've got to think it's one of your better chances to win, with only [33] guys in the field. Some guys probably haven't been here before and maybe have taken some time off and are a little rusty coming in. So I think it's definitely one to come out and be aggressive.”

But as a new generation has fallen for Maui’s charms, both competitively and aesthetically, the Tour has also taken steps to make the long trip worthwhile.

In 2017, the circuit introduced a new strength of field requirement that made players add an event they hadn’t played in five years to their schedules. It’s worth noting this week that the Tournament of Champions is McIlroy’s strength of field add-on.

“It is a good one,” he said with a smile.

The transition to a more condensed schedule this season has also given Maui more relevance for players like McIlroy, who used to delay the start of their seasons until well into the West Coast swing. With only three playoff events and less time to pad your points total, it’s more important now then ever to get off to a good start.

And what better place to get started than Maui?

“I didn't know Maui had so many different landscapes,” said McIlroy, who is playing the Tournament of Champions for the first time in his career. “You look out there and it looks like Hawaii. But then you go two miles down the road and it looks like you could be in Ireland. Like, just where you know it's sort of linksy and that sort of long fescue and you're in a short-sleeved shirt, so you know you're not there, but it is beautiful. Nice way to start the year.”

It’s also become something of a success story for the Tour.

On Saturday. during his annual roundtable with the media in Maui, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was asked about the possibility of adding a mixed-team event with LPGA players to the schedule, which has been a topic for years.

“I'll just answer it directly. I thought, when I first said that, it would be here,” Monahan said.

Framed by a leaderboard studded with star power, those dramatic options to energize the Tournament of Champions now seem unthinkable, much like the notion of skipping the year-opener is for the new generation.