December 5, 2020

A new season starts on the PGA Tour

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K.J. Choi of South Korea hits from the first tee during the pro-am event of the Tournament of Champions PGA Tour golf tournament in Kapalua, Hawaii Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — One par was worth two trophies. One tournament paid Bill Haas just over $11.4 million.

He starts over with a clean slate Friday at the Tournament of Champions, with one less perk than the other winners from last season. Haas won the Tour Championship, the one PGA Tour event in which the winner is not guaranteed a chance to defend his title.

Haas will have to play well over the next eight months, then work his way through the FedEx Cup playoffs and be among the top 30 players who get to East Lake for a shot at the $10 million bonus.

“The goal is to be consistent and try to get back to the Tour Championship to give myself that chance to defend,” he said Thursday. “If I don’t defend, hopefully it’s because I finish 31st and my year was still somewhat successful.

“We’ll just see how I’m feeling about that in October.”

That seems like such a long way off. There are still four majors ahead of him, including a return to The Olympic Club in San Francisco for the U.S. Open, and to Royal Lytham & St. Annes for the British Open. There is that huge incentive of making the Ryder Cup team; Haas played his first team event two months ago at Royal Melbourne in the Presidents Cup.

It’s a lot to digest. And there’s a lot of competition.

Even though 11 players decided not to play — or because of injuries, could not play — in the winners-only tournament that kicks off the new season, all anyone has to do is look around at some of the new faces.

Twelve players in the 28-man field are at Kapalua for the first time. Nine of the players are in their 20s.

“Right now it seems that young is good,” said Steve Stricker, who turns 45 next month.

Stricker is making his fourth consecutive trip to Maui, the longest streak of any player in the field. It’s a familiar start to the season. Not so familiar are some of the guys he’ll be trying to beat. A year ago Stricker didn’t know who some of them were.

Keegan Bradley? He was known more as the nephew of LPGA great Pat Bradley until he won two times, including that unlikely comeback in Atlanta to capture the PGA Championship in his first try at a major.

Jhonattan Vegas was the first PGA Tour member from Venezuela. Scott Stallings? Brendan Steele?

“I know them now a little bit,” Stricker said Thursday on the eve of the opening round.

The PGA Tour season gets under way Friday. It wants to get away from the NFL playoffs on Sunday, so the final round will end Monday just before the BCS Championship game starts.

Jonathan Byrd makes a birdie putt on the 13th green during the pro-am event of the Tournament of Champions PGA Tour golf tournament in Kapalua, Hawaii Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012. Byrd is the defending champion of the tournament which is scheduled to being Friday. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The new faces at Kapalua are not the only difference.

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are no longer part of the top 10 in the world ranking. There are no Americans among the top five for the first time in nearly two decades. And even without the likes of U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, Masters champion Charl Schwartzel or Martin Kaymer in Hawaii, the young guys are making a strong push.

“There’s been a transformation of players out here, and it was going to happen eventually,” said Stricker, who turns 45 next month. “We saw Tiger and Phil slip out of the top 10, and we have some European players coming in there — young European players and young Americans — playing well and stepping right up early on in their careers. So it’s fun to see.”

Haas is among those players expected to take his game up another notch. He has known all along that it’s not easy to get to the next level, having Jay Haas as his father.

“I guess I knew going in … obviously, I was a cocky young kid, but I knew how good everybody was,” he said. “I was playing with my dad on the weekend and getting beat every time. Inside, I knew I wasn’t quite good enough yet to be as cocky as I was. I got out on the Nationwide Tour, wanting to be out here, thinking I deserved to be out here.

“But I quickly learned you don’t deserve to be out here,” he said. “You earn everything.”

And now, everyone starts at zero.

Stricker hopes he gets some advantage through his experience on the Plantation Course, unlike any other course on tour. It was built on a mountain, offering severe changes in elevation, massive greens with slope and grain, and uninterrupted views of the Pacific Ocean.

The surf has been particularly strong on Maui this week, and it creates quite the contrast. Players working their way along the back nine can look down the cliffs and see the ocean littered with surfers off the point at Honolua Bay.

It’s relaxing, but it’s still work.

The winners get a small head start on the rest of the PGA Tour in a short field with no cut, essentially free money from the $5.6 million purse and a jump in the FedEx Cup standings.

It worked beautifully last year for Jonathan Byrd, who won his final event of 2010 to qualify for Kapalua, then opened his season with a playoff win over Robert Garrigus.

Byrd was walking through the Maui airport when he saw promotional posters of him on the wall. His son, Jackson, looked at the poster and said, “Dad, I think you’re famous.”

Byrd’s reply: “At least for this week I am.”

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