Hyundai Tournament of Champions: A last for the first

KAPALUA – The promotions call it “Golf’s Opening Drive.”

That’s the case one more time for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which begins today, though changes to the PGA Tour schedule will make the label unusable after the 15th version of the event at the Kapalua Plantation Course concludes.

Hyundai officials say they love the venue and tournament, but have yet to sign an extension to their current three-year deal, which ends with the final putt Monday.

Clearly, questions abound for the tour’s winners-only start.

The most immediate concern for the 30 players in the field, however, was what challenges the weather will bring.

Thursday’s pro-am had rainy and windy conditions, and the forecast from tour meteorologist Wade Stettner calls for a 60 percent chance of showers today, 40 percent Saturday and 20 percent for each of the final two rounds. Winds are expected to be in the 25 mph range throughout.

“It played extremely long today,” defending champion Steve Stricker said Thursday – he is in the event for the seventh time, the sixth at Kapalua. “A lot of clubs that I’ve never hit into some of these par-4s there, hitting drivers off some of those holes that you typically don’t hit drivers off of, also.

“Yeah, a little bit of an adjustment period there where you had to learn some things today. The ball is not moving as much on the greens as you’re typically used to seeing it move. So that’s a little bit different. It’s a little bit challenging. It’s difficult.”

This year’s season will end with September’s Tour Championship, and the next season will begin in October.

“The new schedule is going to be tough,” said Brandt Snedeker, the 2012 FedEx Cup winner. “I think everybody will want to add some events later in the year, but I also don’t think you want to play 32 events.”

Stricker will cut his slate from 19 or 20 tournaments to 10 or 12 as he develops his foundation to help adolescents.

“I’ve started this foundation with American Family Insurance,” he said. “I’m excited about that. I want to put some more time in on that. And I’m 46 in another couple months, so it’s time to spend a little bit more time at home I think, do this foundation work, and just come out fresh and ready and prepared when I do play.”

The top four players in the world rankings – Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Tiger Woods and Justin Rose – are not in the field despite winning last year, a decision that leaves Rickie Fowler wondering.

“I wouldn’t think of skipping it any time soon,” said Fowler, one of the golfers making his debut in the event. “I’ve always dreamed of playing the Tournament of Champions even when it was at La Costa in SoCal.

“But being over here, it’s cool to come to Maui, talking about all the stuff I’ve done so far and what I will be doing, definitely gives me the motivation to win so I can come back.”

Fowler said moving the event wouldn’t guarantee more top players entering.

“I don’t think where it is really dictates on who comes or who doesn’t,” he said. “I think kind of the timing and scheduling probably has more to do with it.

“But I think with it being here on Maui, a lot of the guys that do come, families or not, they definitely enjoy coming because it is here on Maui.”

At 24, Fowler is the second-youngest player in this field – John Huh is 22 – and he has been having fun in his time on the Valley Isle. He was on Maui once before, when he was 3.

“First real trip to Maui,” he said. “Yeah, been hanging out with a couple of my Red Bull buddies. Ian Walsh and Kai Lenny live just outside of Jaws and hung out there a little bit, planning to go back over there next week after the event.”

* Robert Collias is at