The Season Begins

It seems like everybody was just packing their bags to go home from Greg Norman’s Shark Shootout in Naples, Florida, a week or so ago. And now here we are unpacking them in Maui for the season-opening PGA Tour event, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

They’re playing it at the Plantation Course at the Kapalua Resort in Kapalua, that steep, long, golf course that plays like a weather vane, the wind shifts so much.

But the tournament is a little controversial this year; it’s the smallest field they have ever had. They’re down to just 28 players of the 39 tournament winners who were eligible. Of those 11 who didn’t or couldn’t make it, three are recovering from injuries: Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Fredrik Jacobson. Justin Rose’s wife just had a baby.

For everybody else, it’s more a case of exhaustion. PGA Champion, Keegan Bradley will be playing, but the other three major winners, Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, will not. And three of the four World Golf Champions won’t be making it either. Nick Watney, winner at Doral will be. Luke Donald, Adam Scott and Martin Kaymer won’t.

This is not a new problem. Always intended as an island-getaway reward for the very big deal of winning a PGA Tour event, with the internationalization of professional golf, Maui has become a blip on the schedule too, not just the ocean. Even the Americans started trickling away with Phil Michelson playing last in 2002 and Tiger in 2006.

It’s a long way to come even for a small, no-cut field with checks as big as a typical, full-field event. The winner takes away $1.12 million and last year’s cellar dweller took home $55,000.

Because the elite players in the world have become elite players by playing all over the world, they are subjected to exhausting travel itineraries and schedules, not to mention the tournament themselves. When the world of golf finally does shut down for a few blessed weeks, distant players have little incentive to fly half way around the world to Maui. Although, Darren Clarke was tweeting during the week about the foul weather in Dublin that precluded him even practicing. Even if he could fly there non-stop, it’s still 6,900 miles (and they already have all the frequent flier miles they will need in this life). Schwarzel would have to come from South Africa.

There are some people who are generating ideas to fix this, things like moving the tournament to the U.S. mainland or dropping a couple of the West Coast tournaments in favor of a later and more pronounced start to the season to name just two. Someone even mentioned making it a mandatory tournament for the winners, a complete anathema to the notion that the players are all independent contractors free to chose whichever tournaments they want.

But the best suggestion I found was to do nothing. The tournament is for the fans as much as it is the players. To be stuck in the cold climes of the country, even the world, and know that right after the New Year celebration you will be treated to great players on a roller-coaster course the public can actually play, beautiful palm trees, brilliant blue ocean as far as the eye can see, pounding surf and breaching whales…well, what’s not to like?

And they’re even making it easier on us by beginning the tournament on Friday so that it ends on Monday and doesn’t interfere with the NFL playoffs.

What does any of this have to do with mastery? Well, I waded into all of this detail to demonstrate just how much din there is about it all. You would think that it would have no impact on the players and perhaps it doesn’t for some. But everyone going into the media room gets asked about it, the players that are there are surely thanking their lucky stars for a guaranteed paycheck in a play-land and there may even be some worry on their part that Hyundai will pull its sponsorship (I didn’t hear a peep about this, but business is business).

That’s not even the definitive list, but they all degrade the players’ concentration, even if it’s only in a small way. The idea is to bring all of yourself to the moment for each shot. If these wearying little pieces of details are floating around in your consciousness, you can’t do that. Here’s how Bill Haas described how he was trying to do that in the Tour Championship in Atlanta when he suddenly found out that he was going to be in a playoff:

I went to the range, hit balls. My dad [Jay Haas] was there and we just talked about what I had in front of me. Lived in the moment. I tried to tell myself how great it is that I’m in The Tour Championship and in the playoff, and as nerve racking as it was, I tried to stay in the moment.

This, of course, right when he found himself breaking out of the clouds and in position for the assault on the summit. It requires a lot of experience and practice. But it’s still indicative of the way the swirl gets even the very best players in the world and what they do to deal with it.

Having said all of this, there are some very fine players who did show up in addition to the ones already mentioned: Aaron Baddeley, K.J. Choi, Webb Simpson, Brendan Steele, Steve Stricker, Jhonattan Vegas, Bubba Watson and Gary Woodland.

And then you’ve got some great-story players in two-time winner, Mark Wilson; finally winner in Kevin Na; almost-quit-the-game winner in Harrison Frazar; long-drought winner in David Toms; and I-can’t-believe-I-won winner in Scott Stallings.

We might have a late withdrawal in Lucas Glover. He already withdrew from the pro-am due to a sprained ligament in his knee suffered while paddleboarding in the ocean. He is a very experience paddleboarder, it was just a freak accident where he went one way, the board went the other and his knee took the brunt of those disparate paths.

The Golf Channel will have the primetime broadcast from 5:30 to 10:00 PM Eastern and we’ll all get to see how they sort themselves out.

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