Time to tweak PGA Tour opener

Updated: January 7, 2009

It is hard to beat those panoramic views of the Pacific, and there might not be a tournament that treats players better than the Mercedes-Benz Championship.

Sergio Garcia

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Sergio Garcia, ranked No. 2 in the world, is one of four top players who are skipping the Mercedes-Benz Championship. The others are Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington.

But unless you are one of the fortunate 30 or so who qualify for the annual season-opening event that begins Thursday on Maui, this is hardly the way for a sport to celebrate the beginning of a new year.

The Daytona 500 of golf, this is not. It certainly doesn't have the feel of Opening Day in baseball or even the NFL's Thursday night extravaganza to begin the season.

We're still yawning from New Year's, and many players -- save Vijay Singh -- are probably not chomping to get back to work yet, likely arriving in Hawaii after just having competed a few weeks ago at the Chevron World Challenge or perhaps not at all, figuring this tournament -- no cut, guaranteed paycheck -- can serve as their season warm-up.

Not exactly inspiring, is it?

There are no easy answers.

"I don't know how you're going to have a big bang [to start the year]," said Hunter Mahan, who didn't qualify for the tournament at Kapalua and won't start his season until the fourth event, the FBR Open. "That's tough. NFL playoffs, getting ready for a Super Bowl, it's pretty tough to do. It seems like a lost cause with football."

Ah, football. The albatross that helped lead to the creation of the FedEx Cup and a shorter season is also a factor at the beginning of the season. And perhaps more so.

When the 2009 PGA Tour campaign begins in prime time Thursday night, it has only college football's BCS National Championship Game to compete against. On Saturday and Sunday, it's the NFL's divisional playoffs. Next week, the conference championship games go up against the second tournament, the Sony Open.

"Football, baseball and basketball have a lot more of an offseason than we do," said Jim Furyk, who is also missing the season opener because he did not win in 2008. "Especially football. They're ending around Feb. 1, and you're not going to see football again until the next fall. The long layoff, I think the anticipation builds up. … Our season is just probably too long for that. You can turn the television on probably 50 weeks a year and see network golf."

It doesn't help that the top four players in the world -- Tiger Woods (who is injured), Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington -- are not teeing it up this week despite being eligible.

Perhaps they'd be more inclined to play a season-opening event if it gave them a longer offseason or was more of a grand start to the year. Maybe the PGA Tour needs to move the first tournament back a few weeks -- late January, say -- and require eligible players to tee it up. And why not make it more inclusive, possibly for the top 100 money winners from the prior year. Have a cut after 36 holes, but pay everyone for being there, and make the money official.

Again, nothing is an easy fix. Can you compel everyone to play? That's a dicey issue. Would some tournaments get chopped off to make it happen? Probably. But doesn't golf deserve a better opening than this, even if the view is spectacular?

IF A TREE FALLS IN THE WOODS …

John Daly's six-month suspension from the PGA Tour for various indiscretions came to light on New Year's Eve only because Daly himself chose to give up the secret. The question remains: Why such mystery?

The PGA Tour's stance has always been not to disclose fines or suspensions and not to comment on or even announce any disciplinary action. But how is such action supposed to have any effect if nobody knows about it?

Sure, in the case of Daly, being unable to play for six months is a severe penalty. But isn't it packed with more punch if there is an announcement, a rebuke and maybe some public embarrassment?

In Daly's case, with all that went on in the 2008 season, you could argue that some sort of public censure from commissioner Tim Finchem -- and a standard for Daly to follow when he returns -- is in order. Instead, had Daly not said anything, the rest of the world would have been left simply to wonder why he was choosing not to play.

Players are routinely fined for various misdeeds, such as poor behavior or foul language. Wouldn't the penalty carry a lot more weight if it were announced to the world? Unless the fines are hefty, which is not believed to be the case, the public scorn would do far more to curb the bad behavior.

KODAK MOMENTS

Despite a downturn in the economy and concern across the land as to how it might affect endorsement contracts and the health of tour events, PGA Tour players have an opportunity to make money in a different way this year.

A $1 million competition called the Kodak Challenge begins at the Mercedes-Benz Championship. At 24 tournaments throughout the year, one hole will be chosen as part of the program. Players must play at least 18 of the 24 holes, and for each player, the lowest score relative to par at that hole will count in the competition. At the end of the year, the player with the lowest total across 18 holes will win $1 million.

The hole being used on Kapalua's Plantation course is the par-5 18th. Among others to be used will be the 14th at Torrey Pines for the Buick Invitational and the 18th at Pebble Beach. The next one will be at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic at the end of January.


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NOTABLES

• Among the many lowlights of Daly's year was an incident in Australia in which he broke the camera of an exuberant fan. "I think every player on the tour would have snapped putting up with what he was having to put up with," said Geoff Ogilvy, who also played in the Australian Open. "And there was a guy with a flash less than 3 feet from his face for 20 minutes just going bang, bang, bang, right in his face, trying to get him to snap, and he did. … The Australian Tour didn't even fine him because the guy wasn't even supposed to have a camera at the tournament. I don't blame him at all."

• Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas might have their minds on something other than golf when they play together during the first round of the Mercedes: a football game. Kim, who spent two years at Oklahoma, and Villegas, who graduated from Florida, know that about nine holes into the first round of the year, their respective schools will kick off in the BCS National Title Game in Miami. Kim actually attended a Sooners game while on a recruiting visit to Oklahoma. "I'm going to be thinking more about that game than my round,'' Kim said.

• Jim Furyk will not begin the 2008 season until the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the sixth week of the season. Since the Ryder Cup in September, Furyk has played the Grand Slam of Golf and the Chevron World Championship, meaning it will be a true offseason for him.

• The European Tour, which has already played five events in its Race to Dubai, resumes this week at the Joburg Open in Johannesburg. South Africa's Richard Sterne, who won the past two events, is looking to become the first player since Seve Ballesteros in 1986 to win three straight starts on the European Tour. Nick Faldo is the only other player to win three straight on the European Tour (1983). Retief Goosen is also in the field.

• Masters champion Trevor Immelman is playing in the Mercedes, then heading to the Middle East for next week's Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, the first of three tournaments in the Persian Gulf region. It ought to be some journey, if not a nightmare to adjust. Abu Dhabi is 10 time zones away from Hawaii.

QUOTABLE

"Hey, I'm the underdog. I want to sneak in there so nobody even knows I'm playing." -- Tiger Woods, when asked recently about how he'll feel heading into this year's Masters after so much time off.

MERCEDES PICKS

Horse for the Course: Vijay Singh. You gotta love a guy who has eight top-10s in nine years at Kapalua. And you know the tour's workhorse will be ready to go.

Birdie Buster: Davis Love III. The 20-time winner ended 2008 with a victory at Disney. What a way this would be to start 2009 -- and to qualify for the Masters.

Super Sleeper: Daniel Chopra. After winning this tournament a year ago in a playoff over Steve Stricker, Chopra did not post a top-10 finish the rest of the season.

Winner: Ernie Els. He last played the tournament in 2005, when he tied for third. He also won it in 2003, then won the Sony Open the following week. A big start for the Big Easy.