No Tiger, No Problem. Golf’s Safe In Hawaii

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - January 18, 2012
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The Hyundai Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open, the PGA Tour’s season-opening salvo, again raise the annual concern over the lack of top players venturing beyond the cozy confines of home.

World No. 1 Luke Donald wasn’t at the Sony, neither were Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy or eight of the top 10 golfers. With Europeans making up the bulk of the rankings’ leader board, that is not likely to change. And it will be at least a few more years before Asia starts producing a similar level of male golfers to fill the void. The question is will the ax fall on the state’s only full-field PGA event before players begin to figure out $990,000 is reason enough to make the trip?

The concern is that the lack of headliners will eventually lead to a lack of interest, TV ratings and eventually the title sponsor that makes it all possible.

Not to worry, says Golf Channel commentator Frank Nobilo, pointing out that Hawaii isn’t alone in its concern over the perceived slight.

“I think that argument is made 12 months a year at just about every venue,” says Nobilo. “Anytime you start something (a tour schedule) then you risk getting weaker fields, if you want to use that terminology, purely because golf being 12 months a year now, people need to take a break. Historically the easiest time to take a break is Christmas, especially if you have kids. It’s very easy to turn a couple of weeks off into a month, and that is what happens, even though Hawaii is a brilliant place to start the year. That argument is levied at every event. You’ll see that at Honda, which will have a better field this year but suffered for a decade. Colonial has the same issue, Tiger Woods doesn’t go there, and I can’t remember the last time Phil has played there.”

To combat this concern, the LPGA has instituted a 1-in-4 rule that requires members to play each tournament at least once in a four-year period. The idea has been treated with the warmth of a Scottish evening by the PGA and its players, without anyone offering much of a reason beyond the “independent contractor” cliché.

“If you had the best field in the business here, would the winner be that different?” asked Nobilo. “The golf course itself, to a certain degree, is going to determine who wins. Sony is quite restrictive ... If you bring a guy who hits it 300 yards and he is going to shoot 72, 72 and won’t play on the weekend, what you’ve done is brought out a name to help promote the event and you know this guy doesn’t fit the golf course. It’s better to bring in someone who has a good all-around game.”

I still think the 1-in-4 rule has benefits, but Nobilo does make sense.

Strength of field is an economic concern for every tour stop, but the status of professional golf in Hawaii looks solid. At Hyundai, PGA commissioner Tim Finchem, looking surprisingly relaxed in an aloha shirt and slacks, stressed the Tour’s commitment to Maui and its sponsor. A Golf Digest survey ranked Waialae Country Club as the 23rd most favorite courses on tour (although Kapalua’s Plantation Course was ranked the 10th worst). The Champions Tour Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai continues to attract top talent, and the LPGA, which left the state in 2010, is returning in April for the Lotte Championship.

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