News & Opinion

A beauty of an opener for PGA Tour

Kapalua Resort’s Plantation Course, with the blue splendor of the Pacific as a backdrop, helps affirm for winners from last year that they have, indeed, arrived in golf

That unexpected breeze that just drifted through the living room, gently moving the branches and ornaments on that dry 9-foot fir tree that you’ve yet to take down? No need to be alarmed. That’s simply a cross-country, collective exhale from the 34 PGA Tour pros fortunate enough to tee it up at this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions. After all, the event is staged in Paradise, which, well, beats Buffalo this time of year.

OK, so the mail won’t show up if your stamped letter reads only “Paradise,” so more specifically, we are talking about the Plantation Course at Kapalua, on the island of Maui in Hawaii. For a player not completely spoiled by the perks of winning – say, your Tigers and your Phils – receiving that simple and beautiful invitation to compete at April’s Masters that arrives over the holidays may be the genuine sign that you’ve really made it as a player. If so, Kapalua is 1A. Think of those postcard views of the rollicking Pacific Ocean as you glance out your ocean-view room at the Ritz-Carlton on Maui as the jumbo ice cream sundae that, for a champion, tops everything off.

The 18th hole at Kapalua Resort’s Plantation Course

Different is good on the PGA Tour, and Kapalua is different. The field is very small, just slightly bigger than the season-ending Tour Championship. Not every winner shows up (tee times). Brooks Koepka (injury) won’t play this week, nor will Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, who didn’t find it to be a good fit on the schedule. Justin Rose took a pass. C.T. Pan, a first-time winner last spring, is ill. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, both eligible, are perennial absentees. That hasn’t changed. Mickelson gave Kapalua two tries (1999, 2001), never broke 70 on the undulating par-73 Plantation layout, and decided to stay home near San Diego. Woods, a former winner at Kapalua, prevailing in the Hawaii edition’s peak moment in 2000, hasn’t started a fresh year in Hawaii since 2005. Talk of those two not being in the field are an island tradition, like Poke and the gentle twang of ukuleles.

One has to win to be in, and that’s not easy to do. Early week, players are more likely to be seen on a fishing boat than on the golf course. Range work is light. Some fans and pundits thumb their noses at the official-victory designation given such a small gathering, but the champions’ list at Kapalua is pretty impressive. The past five years have given us Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson (second win) and rising star Xander Schauffele, who closed with 11-under 62 to clip Gary Woodland a year ago. (Woodland’s year would turn out just fine.) Winning the TOC can be a harbinger for a big season ahead. The last three victors (Thomas/Johnson/Schauffele) each placed in the top 5 in the year-end FedEx Cup standings.

The tournament is played right after the holidays, and some players show up a little rusty. That’s natural. There is no cut to go along with the guaranteed paycheck ($63,500 for last place in 2019), and thus time to work out a few kinks, though four days isn’t always ample for everybody. Jason Gore had to make a testy par putt at the 18th hole at Plantation in the final round of the 2006 event to shoot 79, marking the first time all week that he’d broken 80. Those in form (read: those playing late into the previous year) always have an advantage. Aussie Stuart Appleby won in 2004, again in 2005, and then again in 2006. He joked that he needed to buy property at the place. Fellow Aussie Geoff Ogilvy went back to back in 2009-10, the last to do so. Woods, who’d already won a TOC before the tournament’s 1999 move to Hawaii, won at Kapalua in an epic playoff against Ernie Els, the two trading dramatic eagles at the 663-yard finishing hole. That was in 2000. Twenty years goes by fast.

Remember, Tiger was only 24, and still building a resume. Said Els in defeat somewhat famously of his conqueror, “He’s probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he gets into his 40s.” Els finally would get his trophy at Kapalua in 2003, just as David Duval (first winner), Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia would get their victories. Not since 2008 has somebody won on the Plantation and not ended up in that year’s exclusive Tour Championship. (Happy New Year to you, Daniel Chopra.)

Years ago, former World No. 1s Greg Norman and Nick Price used to tell us that the PGA Tour started in March, at Doral. The still fairly new wraparound schedule tells us this season officially started in September, at Greenbrier. We are 11 events into 2019-2020. Truth be told, Kapalua feels like the true starting line in the sand. New year, new attitudes, new goals. Optimism is high, and the possibilities ahead are endless. Grand Slam? Why not? For players willing to hop onto a long flight to a tiny island, the combination of the Sentry TOC and the first full-field event of the year, the Sony Open on nearby Oahu, can provide a tremendous jolt of momentum before the Tour ventures back to the mainland. Just ask Thomas, who won made an island sweep three years ago.

With Woods and Mickelson eligible and absent in years gone by, the tournament seemed to be the B side of what should be a good 45 record. Mickelson was convinced that playing in the high winds messed with his swing. Many years, those followers not on Maui focused more on who wasn’t there than who was. But the younger-generation players who stepped out of Woods’ tall shadow during his long hiatus of the past decade – Rickie Fowler, Spieth, Thomas – decided that starting the new year in bright sunshine on a beautiful exotic island in the Pacific wasn’t such a bad deal.

“I hope that [Kapalua] is the first tournament of the year for the rest of my career,” Thomas said.

The players will encounter a golf course at this week’s TOC that has undergone an extensive “refinement” from original architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Though the bigger-picture aim was to improve the experience mostly for resort guests, Tour pros will feel the effects of some new tees, recontoured and re-grassed greens and vastly renovated bunkering. Mark Rolfing, the NBC/Golf Channel broadcaster and for four decades the unofficial mayor of Kapalua, relishes the return of bunkering that will earn a player’s utmost attention. It’s hard to put into words, but the Plantation’s original bunkering was dramatic to see, and elicited emotion.

“The bunkers basically screamed, Don’t come in here!” Rolfing told this writer last year. “Visually, they were such a big part of the whole experience.”

Yes, visually, everything at Kapalua is part of the whole, rich experience. The colorful rainbows after brief, misty coastal showers. The whales breaching the choppy surf in the nearby bay. The jaw-dropping views off the back of the par-3 11th, where a human standing there can feel so small next to nature’s splendor.

Alex Nakajima, general manager for Troon Golf at Kapalua, has seen a lot of cool places in his days, but when he looks out his office window, he never fails to see the incredible beauty on the other side of the glass. This is why players make the trip. Kapalua is magical, and the best part is, the magic never seems to stop, stretching as endlessly as some of those sprawling rainbows.

And, oh, right ... nearly forgot that there’s a nice treasure for attendees to locate. This week’s winner will earn $1.34 million and 500 big, fat FedEx Cup points. That sounds like Paradise not lost, but found.