LAHAINA, HAWAII | If you’re stuck someplace where winter has settled in like an old stain and truly green grass disappeared long before the Halloween candy did, seeing the Sentry Tournament of Champions unfolding in high definition from magnificent Maui can do one of two things:
Warm a golfer’s soul, reconfirming the belief that frost delays and muddy fairways are temporary (more temporary for some than for others);
Or, make you jealous.
Either one is, if not entirely OK, at least understandable.
It’s easy, if you follow the PGA Tour closely enough, to tire of the beauty shots or at least all the talk about how spectacularly beautiful it is on and around the Sentry Tournament of Champions. But it really is that pretty.
It really is that different and it’s why there is no better marriage of tournament, site and date than this one. There are others – Augusta in April always comes to mind – but starting the calendar year with Molokai sunlit in the distance works like pepperoni and pizza.
Where else would you hear Matthew Wolff talk about slipping away to do some snorkeling after the first round of a tournament?
It’s a place for kids and families even if the wait at the hot-shot sushi spot near the players’ hotel routinely stretches to two hours. (If you’re going to wait two hours anywhere, it would be there).
This is a big event because it’s so small. Winners only. Nothing against making the Ryder Cup team or leading the tour in greens in regulation or having the most top-10 finishes. If you didn’t win over the previous calendar year, you’re not invited.
Jordan Spieth knows. So does Tony Finau. And Bryson DeChambeau.
This event is like the first sip of a crisp cocktail at a nice party, just what you want at just the right time.
We could talk about why Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson and Francesco Molinari are not here and they all have legitimate reasons, not the least of which is their respective bank balances. Frankly, they don’t need the money but they insist they play for trophies and there’s a beautiful blue glass one here that requires beating just 29 other players this week.
Half the players in the field this week are here for the first time, living a dream that pushed them to the PGA Tour. It’s their good fortune that the game’s most famous players are so well off – or in need of a longer break – that they chose not to be here.
This event is like the first sip of a crisp cocktail at a nice party, just what you want at just the right time. It hints at what’s to come, not just this weekend but through the end of the summer heat when everything but hearts will stop for the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.
Read through the list of winners in this event since it moved to Kapalua in 1999 and it’s like a brief history of the game. David Duval. Tiger Woods. Jim Furyk. Sergio García. Ernie Els. Vijay Singh. Dustin Johnson. Spieth. Justin Thomas.
No wonder Matt Kuchar stood in the slanting sunshine Thursday afternoon talking about how much he wants to win this tournament. He’s won more than $50 million in his PGA Tour career and that can buy him almost anything – but his name on the wall here.
Maybe this weekend will change that. The trade winds are going to blow, whipping over the hilltops that frame corners of this course, buffeting the property and testing the patience of every player. Maybe that favors Rickie Fowler who loves playing in the wind because “it tells you what to do.” He’s never finished lower than sixth in this event but he still hasn’t won here.
Technically, the PGA Tour season began in mid-September in the hills of West Virginia where 20-year-old Joaquín Niemann won his first PGA Tour event but it feels like the season is just starting. The FedEx Cup standings (now the driving currency of the tour) say otherwise but it never feels like the season really starts until Augusta is visible in the distance.
From the 17th tee at the Plantation Course, it seems as if you can almost see Georgia. You can’t. I tried.
It’s a game, though, of feels and feelings. You know it when you play and you know it when you follow the best in the world from Hawaii to the West Coast to Florida then on to the Masters. They will get there soon enough.
This week is about starting fresh, looking ahead rather than behind.
At Kapalua, it’s all about the views – this weekend and through the rest of the season.
Enjoy the scenery.
A scenic view of the 12th hole at the Plantation Course at Kapalua. Photo: Sam Greenwood, Getty Images
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