What we learned at Kapalua
KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The island of Maui has a population of about 140,000. Its highest peak is 10,023 feet. Humpback whales migrate 3,500 miles from Alaska each autumn to the warm waters surrounding the island.
See, there are plenty of things the Weekly 18 learned during the PGA Tour's season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship, but admittedly most others were about golf.
Herewith, the top 18 facts and observations from Week 1 on tour:
After winning the Mercedes-Benz Championship title each of the past three years, Stuart Appleby went on to claim only one other victory total (at last year's Houston Open) during that span. Don't expect this year's champ, Vijay Singh, to become so complacent. One month shy of his 44th birthday, Singh is primed for one final hurrah on the World Ranking. He may not catch Tiger Woods, as he did in 2004, but the big Fijian has a renewed commitment to fare better than his one-win season of '06. He's already well on the way.
Like we said, don't expect Singh to place this trophy on the mantle and kick back in his hammock for the next eight months. But having the Mercedes-Benz title under your belt gives a player a certain sort of accomplishment throughout the season. For one, Vijay has already earned a trip back to Kapalua next year, a feat which shouldn't be overlooked.
OK, slight problem. Actually, big problem. When the tour's two most popular golfers eschew one of the year's signature events in favor of, well, staying home, it's a major issue. The biggest problem? There's no way to ensure Woods or Phil Mickelson will show up. We've heard the phrase time and again, but it still rings true: These guys are "independent contractors" and as such, can pretty well do whatever they want, whenever they want.
"Somebody's going to be leading the FedEx Cup tonight, and it's not going to be one of those two guys," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said on Sunday afternoon. "Would I prefer it this way? No." Cut through the rhetoric and it's easy to find the commissioner's true feelings on Woods and Mickelson skipping the season-opener, just as they both did at last year's Tour Championship.
Of course, that doesn't mean players are enthused by such a prospect. After exactly one round under the new format, Vijay Singh walked off the course and proclaimed, "There's so much going on about FedExCup. I'm tired of listening to it." Ah, truly a quote only Finchem couldn't love.
In response to a question about whether he's eager to get the first FedEx Cup season completed, Finchem said, "When I became commissioner, 100 percent of the players on the Champions Tour were older than I was. And now, 65 percent of them are younger than me. So I'm no longer in a position where I'm eager for any year to be over." OK, he's no Dane Cook (or whomever the kids laugh at these days), but he's trying, which is nice.
OK, so we knew this already, but when Singh is in a good mood -- as he was after clinching the victory -- the dude can deliver a punchline. Consider this one, when asked if his age (he'll turn 44 next month) is slowing him down: "Fred Funk won a golf tournament when he was 48 and I'm a lot bigger and a lot stronger than Freddie Funk. So if he can win at 48, you know, what makes me think I'm not going to win when I'm 50?" Or this, when deadpanning about his plans for Sunday evening: "I think I'm going to go get drunk tonight."
We're sticking by our previous claim that Adam Scott will have a true breakthrough season in '07, surpassing the likes of Mickelson and Jim Furyk to become the world's no-doubt-about-it No. 2-ranked player. He did nothing to quash this claim at Kapalua, displaying an unbelievably smooth swing in claiming a solo second place for the week.
Maybe it just took David Toms a few days to get used to those new TaylorMade clubs in his bag. After kicking off the week with rounds of 75-72-72, Toms shot a tournament-best 6-under 67 on Sunday to squeeze into a share of eighth place. Heading into his title defense at the Sony Open, he could be primed to contend. And we know it's eight months away, but for some reason, we really like Toms at East Lake. Just something to file away.
Those who took advantage of the offseason to sharpen their games for the upcoming year saw their work have an immediate impact over those who preferred to kick back and relax for a few months. Consider the opening-round pairing of Singh and Ben Curtis: The former has, as usual, diligently worked on honing his craft, while the latter had barely touched a club. "He said he only played three rounds of golf since the the Tour Championship," Singh said after the first round. "And I said, 'Wow, it showed today.'" It showed in the final results, too, as Singh won the event and Curtis finished dead last.
In between surfing, hanging with family and telling his life story so many times he probably has it down word-for-word, Will MacKenzie played a little golf this week. And he played really well. We'll admit that when MacKenzie won last year's Reno-Tahoe Open -- an opposite-field event played against the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational -- and finished the season at exactly 100th on the money list, that we hardly paid attention. We're paying attention now, Willie Mac.
In 2006, Mickelson sliced a final-hole tee shot off the roof of a merchandise tent at the U.S. Open and Greg Owen missed two putts from inside of three feet at Bay Hill, but neither made such an egregious blunder as MacKenzie did Thursday. In a post-round interview with the Golf Channel, he not only revealed he was staying at the nearby Ritz-Carlton hotel, but innocently said his room number on live TV. After fielding phone calls from several well-wishers, MacKenzie called it a "rookie mistake" the next day.
It's always nice to find a new guy on tour with a tale that differs from the norm, which is what makes MacKenzie so intriguing. He's a kayaker, rock climber and heliboarder who lived in both a van and a cave in recent years. But it's his sheer delight in being a PGA Tour golfer that really makes him stand out. "Man, I am tight with everybody on tour," he said on Friday. "I'm competing against them, but I like them a lot. I have respect for them. I don't think there's one guy out here that I don't really like."
OK, so he doesn't have the rippled forearms or Latin appeal of Villegas, last year's rookie sensation, but tour officials are already so enthused about his fan friendliness that they're thinking of future ways to promote his story. If MacKenzie can continue contending at big events, he'll become the tour's next household name.
OK, maybe we didn't necessarily learn anything here; we kind of knew this already. But once again, gusting winds -- not precipitation nor extreme temperatures -- proved to be the biggest determining factor when it comes to scoring.
Appleby's three-year reign as Mercedes-Benz champion prompted the Aussie -- nicknamed the King of Kapalua -- to actually buy land here on Maui. He finished T-13 for the week, and it'll be interesting to see how he follows without the PGA Tour's version of a get-out-of-jail-free card in his back pocket this season.
We're speaking literally here, folks. Three of the four punctuated players in the field -- J.B. Holmes, K.J. Choi and J.J. Henry -- each finished in the top 10 at T-4, T-8 and T-8, respectively. Meanwhile, the fourth, D.J. Trahan, came in 32nd out off 33 players.
The nearby landmass separated from Maui by a little ocean water is omnipresent at the Plantation Course, where players can simply look to the island for a read of the greens. Of course, many during the week -- pros and amateurs alike -- were left wondering if that was East Molokai or West Molokai they were aiming for.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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