While last week’s tournament in Maui may have officially been the first of the year, this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii is the first full-field event. So 144 guys have trundled out to the Hawaiian Islands to put their peg in the ground on the Waialea Country Club in Honolulu. And except for those guys who had a chance to play last week, most of them will be coming with great anticipation. The question is, what kind of anticipation?
The veterans are battle tested and quite used to cranking up a new season. Most of them are unconcerned about keeping their cards; they know it’s a long season, they know they’ll be playing in a lot of tournaments and their long-demonstrated talent will eventually rise to the occasion. They’ve been hitting balls and playing in preparation for this, so they aren’t too worried about a little tournament rust. It’s all part of it.
There are some veterans who will be concerned about their cards. They will be filled with determination to put some daylight between themselves and that 125th spot that garners the last card. They also know that it will be a long season, but they already saw the fragility of that mindset. They are more worried about the rust and probably a little concerned whether the duct tape and baling wire they’ve used to cobble together a game that will hold up. They may be concerned with their swings or putting strokes and they’re just looking for a way to play freely.
Then you have the young guys who’ve been on the Tour for a couple of years, “The Gunslingers.” These are the guys who probably haven’t won yet, but know that they will. They are more concerned about that than any threat that they’d lose their cards. They’re over all the rookie stuff and sophomore blues. They’ve arrived.
And finally there are the rookies. All of them have played in relatively big tournaments; they know what it’s like and they are tournament tough. But those tournaments weren’t PGA Tour tournaments. PGA Tour tournaments provide you with a car. They feed you all day long in the locker room; you never have to worry about finding a 5:00 AM McDonald’s.
They give you money clips to wear on your belt when you’re playing to designate that you are a player. They give you outside-the-ropes credentials that you hang around your neck and are easy for the volunteers to see. You are the centerpiece of the week. Everywhere you go, people watch you, people treat you with great deference, they part like the Red Sea when they see you coming.
You have to be on time for the pro-am and you have to be on time for your tee times, but aside from that, you have the run of the manor. You need to work on your short game? You can go to the chipping and pitching greens and stay there for hours. Bunker play a little rusty? You can hit sand shots until there’s no sand left in the bunker. You can wear a trough in the putting green, go through dozens of personalized bags of balls on the range (the volunteers pick the range, wash the balls and then sort them into the bags by brand and model). The various volunteers are constantly looking for any other ways they can help you.
If you’ve not experienced all of this before, it can be rattling. Do I really belong here? Do I really deserve all of this? Don’t they know it’s just me? I don’t really need all of this attention, I just want to play golf. What day is it? Is it time yet? When’s my tee time?
Eventually you settle in to it all and barely see it any more. It’s not that you don’t appreciate it, it’s just that it becomes all part of it. And the only time you really notice it is when you lose your card and you’re back on the mini-tours. So many say they didn’t really realize just how great life on Tour was; they knew it was good, but they knew it was really good when it was suddenly missing.
And none of this begins to take into account the fact that everywhere you look, all you can see, all you can feel, all you are aware of is the best professional golfers in the world. Oh, there’s definitely a hierarchy, but we’re talking about Stroke Averages that vary just 2.02 strokes in the first 100 guys in 2011. But Luke Donald is No. 1 and he accounts for .39 strokes of that by himself. In other words, there are guys who have bad days, but there are no more mini-tour guys. These guys can all play and they are relentless. They don’t give up. It’s like you have this imaginary tidal wave looming up behind you. They’re coming. They’re here. Don’t turn around.
So everybody has to find a way to play from wherever they are in the pecking order. The ones who will do that the best are the ones who have done it the most. A new name may come to the fore, but history tells us that it will be one of the experienced players. The rookies are going to be more concerned with just learning how to quiet their minds enough so that they can play at this level. But it takes a while until you stop acting like a gawker.
And we can watch the all of this unfolding on the Golf Channel from 7:00 to 10:30 PM, ET.