These guys happy to be here on Maui

KAPALUA – One season after six eligible players in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Rankings skipped the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, four more have done so for the event that begins on Friday at the Kapalua Plantation Course.

This time, they just happen to be the top-four-ranked players in the world.

To the 30 PGA Tour winners from 2012 who are here, the fact that No. 1 Rory McIlroy, No. 2 Luke Donald, No. 3 Tiger Woods and No. 4 Justin Rose have decided to stay home this week – along with former champions here, Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia – is somewhat baffling.

Nos. 5-7 on the world list did not win a PGA Tour event in 2012, leaving No. 8 Bubba Watson – the 2012 Masters champion – as the top-ranked golfer in this field.

“It is the best way to start the year, definitely as a golfer, but not even as a golfer – just to be here on Maui is incredible,” Nick Watney, No. 20 on the world list, said before a practice session on Tuesday. “I’m excited to be here and hopefully I can play some decent golf, too.”

Watney said he will not miss an event here when he is eligible – this is his fourth trip to the winners-only event. His best finish came in his first appearance here, a tie for fifth in 2008 when he won $218,000.

“I can’t speak for them, but as far as myself, whatever I was ranked and I was eligible to come here, I would do it,” Watney said. “On why they didn’t, I’m not really sure. I know that a lot of them travel all over the world, so maybe they want to take a break. I don’t know, but for me, I wouldn’t miss it.”

Watney said this event carries a special place in his heart. The fact that this is the last time this event will open the PGA Tour season will make little difference to Watney next season. After this, the season will open in October.

“It is an honor to be here, it is something I grew up watching,” he said. “I think it will hold the same prestige and the same clout even though it is not technically the beginning of the season. As a winners-only event, especially coming here to this beautiful place, I think it will always hold a special place for the players.”

Australian Marc Leishman is making his first appearance here, coming in ranked 87th in the world.

“It’s awesome, obviously this is where you want to start your year, your season every year and for it to be an awesome place like Maui, is pretty cool,” Leishman said next to the practice range Tuesday.

Leishman said that the change in the tour schedule means very little to Kapalua.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “You are still going to have to win to get into the event. You have obviously got to play pretty well to get in, so it is not going to be easier or harder to get in to, it is going to be the same. It is just that it is not going to be at the beginning of the season, it’ll be four or five events in to it. That doesn’t change anything for me.”

Leishman said it is tough to get everyone eligible to play here.

“It is their decision, I guess, when they decide they want to have their Christmas break or their offseason,” he said. “Golf is probably the only sport that doesn’t have a scheduled break, so that is probably why they choose (not to come). I don’t think there is anything you can really do. It is just a matter of personal choice, I guess.”

Leishman is one who will be here whenever he can.

“I love it,” he said. “Obviously this is my first year, but I’d love to be here every year. I wouldn’t miss it, so hopefully I will be.”

Zach Johnson, a former Masters champion currently ranked 25th who is making his sixth appearance here, said this field rivals almost any in the world.

Ironically, in the last three seasons, the Kapalua champion did not win again in the same year.

“I think it is pretty special as it is,” Johnson said. “That is a difficult question, it is probably just timing (for the top players). It is about their scheduling, it is about where they play. The thing I would add to that is those are number rankings. I don’t think number rankings say it all.

“In other words, the quality of what we have here is as good as any 30 guys you can put together.”

* Robert Collias is at