Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Tournament of Champions at Kapalua: Golf Does Not Need Tiger

There has been talk in many circles that golf is declining.  I, myself, have been an ardent critic of new fads in the game.  I abhor laser yardage guns, winter rules, and, above all, golf carts.  Yet despite economic and cultural signs that the game might be in decline, I constantly find reason to be optimistic about the game's future.

     One moment that always rejuvenates my interest in the game is the start of the PGA Tour season.  November and December are always down months for me as a golf fan.  Schoolwork sets in, the days shorten, and snow and ice begin to blanket my Northeastern home.  In past years, my constant drive for improvement in my own game kept my thirst for golf high.  However, now that I have relinquished my dreams of winning the Masters by 13 shots, golf fades away with the warm weather at year's end.  It is not until the PGA Tour season's beginning in Hawaii that I renew interest in the game of golf.  In what has become a tradition, the first tournament of the year is always the Tournament of Champions at the Kapalua Resort's Plantation Course in Maui.

     The tournament is very unique in that it has both a limited field (only the previous year's tournament winners are invited) and a limited gallery following play.  Furthermore, the Plantation Course, designed by modern golf architecture geniuses Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, is completely different from most PGA Tour courses.  The fairways are landing-strip wide to accommodate massive elevation changes and a harsh, ravine-filled landscape.  Players are challenged not by artificial water hazards and gaudy bunkers, but by low-profile sand hazards and vexing ground features.  While the course is not particularly taxing for the world's best, the most creative players will succeed around the Plantation.  Unlike the slog that takes place at many professional tournaments, rounds at the Plantation are a thrill, both for the players and the fans.  In his post-round interview, after missing a lead-tying putt at the 18th, reigning US Open champion Graeme McDowell called the course "great fun."  Unlike the fascist setups of many modern courses that force defensive golf, the Plantation Course wants golfers to be inventive.  In short, the Plantation Course asks golfers to play shots.

     And shots were played at Kapalua.  The highlight of the week was Bubba Watson's second shot into the 18th on Thursday.  From a downhill, ski-slope lie, the swashbuckling lefty hit a driver "off the deck," cutting the ball some fifty yards from right to left.  The ball curved around the ravine that fronts the long par five, caught the downslope short of the green, and chased to within ten feet of the flag.  Watson then drained the putt for an eagle three.  The treacherous trade winds that constantly buffer the Plantation Course forced players into crazy situations.  Many tour pros hit fairway woods into the par-four opening hole, only to hit irons into the 663-yard finishing hole.  Young gun Jason Day, who was six under on his second round through 12 holes, hit six inches behind the ball on his drive off number 13.  The drive finished less than 150 yards off the tee.  Unfazed, Day hit driver once again to some 50 yards short of the green, then got up and down for his par.  The real fireworks of the tournament came from Robert Garrigus.  On Friday, he holed his second shot for eagle on the par 16th.  The next day, after starting three over through four holes, he finished strong, culminating with an long eagle putt on the 18th that hit the back of the hole, bounced up, then dropped in.  Garrigus nearly did it again on the 18th on Sunday, chasing a five-wood to 15 feet, only to burn the edge on an eagle putt that would have won him the tournament.

     Unfortunately, Garrigus lost to Jonathan Byrd by missing a four-footer on the second playoff hole.  Garrigus' loss can be attributed partially to his utmost regard for fans.  After finishing regulation play, Garrigus had time to kill until Byrd finished his round and potentially forced a playoff.  Most tour pros would head to the range or the putting green for some last-minute practice.  Garrigus decided to spend time signing autographs for eager spectators and talking to his family.  When he went into the clubhouse before the playoff, he explained that he had to get more golf balls.  He had given away all of the golf balls in his bag to fans.

     Garrigus is the sort of fellow that makes golf the great game that it is.  He is a reformed alcoholic whose comeback is inspiring to many.  He plays the game with a youthful enthusiasm, and he isn't afraid to show the emotion and nerves that other players hide.  Above all, he is a gentleman who puts others first and never complains about his misfortunes on the course.  Garrigus was one of many class acts on the leaderboard, from the tournament champion Byrd to the hard-charging McDowell, who fired a course record-tying 62 only to fall one shot short of the playoff.  Every player  exuded incredible class in both victory and defeat down the stretch.  In addition, they played with a zeal that recalls what makes the game great.  It was hard to ask for a better week of golf.

     This week's Tournament of Champions was a great example of how golf should be played at the professional level.  Since it was so idyllic, it begs the question, "why does golf need Tiger Woods?"  Since Tiger's meltdown last winter, the competition in the pro game has been markedly different.  After Phil Mickelson's win in the Masters, three new faces, who are all great players, by the way, won the year's final three majors.  Tiger struggled on the course.  Not only did he play poorly, but he comported himself like a loser throughout the season.  While players like McDowell talk about having fun, Tiger looks like he's miserable.  He is playing in tournaments at courses where most golfers would give a limb to play, but he looks like he's standing trial for aggravated assault.

     Golf fans should shy away from Tiger mania and look at all the good that is going on in the game.  Tiger does not make the game "cool" anymore.  He certainly does not set a good example for young golfers.  And, most disturbingly, he looks like he hates golf more than ever.  Fans need to recognize that there is great golf to be had beyond Tiger Woods.  Golfers, young and old, will find more inspiration in a great tournament like Kapalua than a report on Tiger's latest transgressions.  Golf does not need Tiger.  Instead, the game's ruling bodies need to support the respectable Tour pros that continue to compete at the highest level while focusing on the problems that still exist, partially because of Tiger, in the game today.

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