Hyundai Tournament of Champions: A Small Field Full of Masters

The Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which begins Friday with a Monday finish, is a little like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. When the winners of the previous year’s tournaments begin showing up at the Plantation Course at Kapalua on Maui, Hawaii, we know the beginning of the PGA Tour season can’t be too far behind…except now, with the new 2013-2014 season format that began back in early October with the Frys.com in California, we’re beginning the 2014 portion of the season. It still feels like a sense of renewal though.

And it’s not a bad way to get things kicked off: a beautiful uphill-downhill course, gorgeous ocean views of the Pacific and frolicking whales. We are transported there by the click of the television, the winners get there through years of hard work finally coming together in victory on the PGA Tour, one of the hardest things in the world to do.

This year’s field is only 30 players. The bane of this tournament is that many of the top stars decline to enter because their careers are all pointed at winning majors and their schedules are all structured for that. And many of the European Tour stars played late into the calendar year. The first week of January is a little early to begin tuning up for the Masters, but the season does wear you down over the year.

So here are brief snippets on the masters who did show up: 

Woody Austin won the Sanderson Farms Championship in Madison, Mississippi, an “opposite field” event to the British Open. Perhaps best known for his fiery demeanor and as “Aquaman” for his inadvertent slip into a greenside pond in the Presidents Cup, Sanderson was his 4th career victory. This gives him the option of deferring his migration to the Champions Tour by two years.

Sang-Moon Bae is a very refined young player from South Korea. I watched him hit balls at last year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson and it was impressive. His American agent was almost drooling talking him up to me. So it was no surprise that he won the HP Byron Nelson in only his second year on Tour.

Jonas Blixt, a Swedish transplant who played at Florida State and earned a degree in International Relations, now resides in Jacksonville Beach. He is no doubt basking in the glory of his second win in his short, two-year career, the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia.

Scott Brown broke through to win the Puerto Rico Open in just his second year on Tour. Born in Augusta, Georgia, it’s no surprise that he went to school just up the road at the University of South Carolina in Aiken. And then stayed in the area. But it must suit him; he’s already had two top 10s in 2014.

Jason Dufner, “The Duf,” the man who inadvertently gave us the “Dufnering” phenomenon when he spaced out in an outing to an elementary school, had his irons tuned razor sharp to win the PGA Championship. It was his 3rd victory in two years and locked up his status for another five years. And his stature as a great player.

Ken Duke worked nineteen years since he turned pro in 1994 for his first victory on the PGA Tour, the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Connecticut. But he didn’t get to the Tour until 2004. A great story of belief, determination and persistence.

Harris English, one of the new young stars on the Tour, won the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Mexico. He served notice that this was coming when he won a Nationwide Tour event as a University of Georgia amateur, won his card at the end of 2011 and had a win a year since then. He also teamed with Matt Kuchar to win this year’s Greg Norman’s Shootout.

Derek Ernst came out on Tour from Q-School in 2013 and won right away in Charlotte at the Wells Fargo Championship. He’s out of UNLV with a degree in Hotel Management. His highest ranked stat in 2014 is Total Driving where he’s 10th. That explains a lot.

Brian Gay won the Humana Challenge in Palm Springs for his 3rd victory on Tour. He is the No. 1 putter on Tour, a fact that makes up for his lack of distance off the tee. And he already finished T4 in this year’s McGladrey Classic in Sea Island, Georgia.

Bill Haas won Tiger Woods’ AT&T National at Congressional in Washington, D.C. It was his 5th win which includes the Bob Hope, The Tour Championship (remember that incredible “splash” shot out of the lake on 17?) and at Riviera in LA in a playoff with Phil and Keegan.

Russell Henley proved that Harris English wasn’t the only good player out of the University of Georgia when he won the Sony Open in Hawaii, his very first Tour event as a professional. He went on to score two more top 10s and win $2 million.

Billy Horschel won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in his 3rd year on Tour and doggedly went on to make 22 of 26 cuts and $3.5 million. Seven more top 10s got that done and also got him an invite to the Dunlop Phoenix on the Japan Golf Tour where he finished T14. As you’re watching this guy, keep in mind that he’s the No. 1 player in Total Driving.

Dustin Johnson is the Hyundai Defending Champion having won the 2012 FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis to get there. And he’s already gone on to win the 2014 WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, his only tournament of the year so far. He finished 2nd in Driving Distance in 2013 and consequently 1st in Eagles.

Zach Johnson won the BMW Championship in Chicago, the gateway tournament to the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Georgia, where he finished T7. All of that was worth $4 million plus the $1 million for taking out Tiger with a miracle par at his season-ending Northwestern Mutual World Challenge. And he’s No. 9 in the world.

Chris Kirk won his home game, the 2014 McGladrey Classic at Sea Island, Georgia. A 4th year player with now two Tour victories, he’s yet another winner out of the University of Georgia, his degree in 2007 is in Sports Business.

Matt Kuchar won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament making 23 of 23 cuts and $5.6 million in the process. All three of his Driving stats were quite mortal, but finishing 7th in Scoring Average indicates he might have super-hero powers.

Martin Laird won the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio for his third win in his six years on Tour. From Scotland and out of Colorado State, he seems to fly under the radar — and I pay attention to him! — but he made $2.6 million in 2011 when he also won the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

John Merrick was a great story when he won his home game, the Northern Trust Open in LA. On Tour since 2007, it was his first win and the first time a player from LA Country won the tournament. It probably didn’t hurt that he went to UCLA just up the road from historic Riviera.

Ryan Moore won the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Out of UNLV, Moore was the former iconoclast who wore throwback outfits, including a white shirt and tie, and a painters hat as a modern-day homage to the history of the game. He went on to traditional attire and a $17 million, 9-year career…so far.

D.A Points won the Shell Houston Open to get in, but he’s probably most famous for his other win, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am where he laughed his way through the tournament with his amateur partner, Bill Murray. But with six years on the Web.com Tour and seven on the PGA Tour, it ain’t like he didn’t pay his dues.

Patrick Reed won the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina, charmingly with his wife, Justine, on the bag. Charmingly because she wasn’t just toting the bag, she was an active partner. Reed also became somewhat of a modern-day legend when he Monday qualified into six tournaments in 2012.

Adam Scott won both the Masters and The Barclays in Jersey City, New Jersey, the first leg of the four-tournament Playoffs. That makes ten tournaments since he joined the Tour in 2003 and makes him No. 2 in the World Golf Rankings. I probably could have gotten away with, “Adam Scott, who needs no introduction.”

Webb Simpson won in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children. But it was his 2012 U.S. Open that gives him a five-year exemption. He joined the Tour in 2009 and it took a two-year apprenticeship to win the first time, but then he won twice within weeks at the end of 2011.

Brandt Snedeker won twice in 2013 at Pebble Beach and at the RBC Canadian Open. One of the Tour’s top-5 putters in 2013, his Huck Finn, boyish good looks, make him one of the most appealing players on Tour. That and the fact that a year after he won the $11 million for his Tour Championship/FedExCup wins, he still had no plans to spend the money.

Jordan Spieth turned in one of the top rookie performances in the history of the PGA Tour. Beginning the year with no status at all, he won the John Deere Classic and played so well all year long that he made $3.9 million and was a Captain’s pick in the Presidents Cup. I can’t wait to see what he does this year.

Kevin Streelman won the Tampa Bay Championship early in the year. He went on to finish 25th in the FedExCup playoffs, had 5 top-10 finishes and banked $3.1 million. Another player who paid his dues, he burned out three cars on the mini-tours trying to get to the Tour.

Michael Thompson won the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens for his first win on the PGA Tour. He is interesting because his coach, Susie Meyers, teaches an organic approach to the swing where focusing on any one thing disturbs the whole of it. Instead, they focus on the club head and just work on hitting shots.

Jimmy Walker won the first tournament of the new season, the Frys.com. It took him eight patient years and 187 attempts to do it. But he racked up $8.6 million trying and evolved as a player who goes in with no expectations, but prepared to just hit good shots and take what comes his way. And he continues to improve; he’s currently No. 2 in putting.

Boo Weekley won the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, a perfect venue for him because of its demand for great shotmaking. It was five years since his last win at Hilton Head, another shotmaker’s paradise, where he’d won back-to-back. His $2.8 million in 2013 was an appropriate reward for those intervening, injury-riddled years.

Gary Woodland’s second win came at the Reno-Tahoe Open, a nice comeback from a lean 2012 where he changed agents, coaches (to Butch Harmon) and his swing. As long as anybody on Tour, he should have good memories of the 18th hole at the Plantation Course; he hit the longest drive on the PGA Tour there in 2012, 450 yards.

So there you have it, “You can’t tell the players without a program.”

It has all the makings of a wonderful kickoff to yet another amazing year on the PGA Tour.

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