Prelims Over, the Real Season Begins

Phil Mickelson helped the Humana field, but he wasn't a factor on Sunday. Photo copyright Icon SMI.

More than ever, the first three tournaments on the PGA Tour this year felt like a mere prelude to the real season. These events produced three nice-guy winners (and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that!), but with most of the big names away the Tour started with a whimper instead of with a bang.

The Hyundai Tournament of Champions has been struggling to attract the top players to its season-opening event for about a decade now, and this year might have been its worst field ever. Not only were stars like Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy (a heavy schedule in late 2011), and Phil Mickelson (said not to like the Kapalua course) no shows, there were more than the usual number of injuries and off-season surgeries, and one baby being born, leaving a thin group of 27 players.

In fact, it might have been the weakest field for any event ever on the PGA Tour, save for opposite-field tournaments. Think about it. You only had to beat 26 players instead of 143 or 155 as at a full-field event—and the Tour is deep enough that at least 100 of them have a chance to win. Some observers even consider the Tour Championship, with its field of 30, to be a cheap victory. I don’t agree with that, because at least those are 30 of the best players on the Tour (not absolutely the 30 best because of the absence of some international players and the vagaries of the point system, but still a strong group of 30). But even a full-strength Tournament of Champions would be weaker than that—there are always a few good players who go winless in any given year and a few journeyman players who are there only because they had a brief moment in the sun. When you take away the best players on top of that, you get a field that is both small and weak at the top.

Something should be done about the TofC. It needs a format tweak, whether it’s inviting winners from the past two or three years or inviting winners of select events from international tours. Or it could be shifted at least a bit later. That’s tough to do because the PGA Tour schedule is so full—but how about switching the Hawaii events so the Tour opens with the Sony Open and then goes to Kapalua, moving it a week further from the holidays and perhaps enticing those looking to rest after an active November/early December?

While the TofC needs improvement, I’m pretty much OK with the PGA Tour easing into the season—that’s a result of the fullness of both the PGA Tour and international schedules and I’m not inclined to say that playing opportunities should be taken away. It’s just that this year seemed too much of a slow start.

That said, there were signs of hope for the tournament that used to be called the Hope. The newly minted Humana Challenge, with the involvement of President Bill Clinton, was a shot in the arm for what had become a tired and, recently, sponsor-less Bob Hope Desert Classic (and further evidence that “Classic” or, for that matter, “Open,” are no longer the words of choice for new tournaments. “Challenge” or “Championship” are now preferred, the latter used even for tournaments that aren’t the championship of anything).

The tournament created more buzz, but the field was only slightly better than it has been and the group of contenders on Sunday no more compelling than recent editions. Phil Mickelson admirably recovered from an abysmal start—five-over through 23 holes of desert golf—to make the cut, but was not a main actor on Sunday. Dustin Johnson withdrew during the second round, perhaps having come back too soon from knee surgery (he cited a bad back, maybe caused because he had not walked any rounds before coming to the Humana) and Greg Norman was there mostly for his third-round role of playing with Clinton.

Mickelson gave us another head-scratcher when he said he had been hitting a new driver well during the off-season, but decided to use the old one when the bell rang—and hit it out of bounds twice in the first round. He quickly switched to the new one. Also of interest was that he used a regular-length putter. He tried a belly putter late last year for one tournament, but spoke of needing more practice with it to master the different style. The off-season would have been a good time to work on that, so the best guess is that the short putter is here to stay, though if he putts as poorly this year as he did in 2011 all bets are off.

Cutting the tournament to four rounds on three courses instead of five rounds on four courses was necessary in order to have a chance to attract a better field—the Hope stuck with the old format for far too long. Having two amateurs and two pros in each group, instead of a pro and three amateurs, was also a good idea. Those changes—more than the persuasive powers of a President most of them didn’t like—will cause more players to give the Humana serious consideration. Still, there’s a question as to whether that particular week works with a player’s schedule—especially the big names—so the jury is out on how much of a boost the field will get.

This week, the “real” season starts with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, and Lee Westwood in action in Abu Dhabi on the European Tour and a reasonably good field assembled at Torrey Pines on the PGA Tour. For Woods, it’s yet another return from an absence—this time six weeks since his victory in the unofficial Chevron World Challenge. Let’s hope he holds up well enough to get a full season out of him this time, so we can get a better idea of where he stands after a couple of lost years.

Woods is playing in Abu Dhabi mainly for the reported appearance money of $1.5 million. To that I say, can we really blame him? True, it’s a loss for Torrey Pines—but a gain for Pebble Beach, where Woods will play instead, his first appearance at the AT&T in 10 years.

A lot of people will be tuning in to the Golf Channel in the mornings to catch the tournament with the Tiger and the world’s highest-ranked players. Then again, the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines features the likes of Mickelson, Johnson, Bubba Watson, Ernie Els, Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, and Keegan Bradley, making it a good double bill. The preliminaries are over.

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