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Huge Prize Money and Sunshine

So why are top golfers absent from the Hyundai Tournament of Champions?

Posted Jan 04, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece


Top prize of $1.12 million from an overall fund of $5.6 million: sound inviting?   I’ll bet it does.  And just in case you happen to be less than enamoured of the idea of tournament golf in January, the event is arranged at a venue where temperatures in the low eighties are taken as par for the course.

For most sports observers, it’s hard to imagine how it would be necessary for the organisers to promote the Hyundai Tournament of Champions which takes place on the Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii this week.  You would imagine players falling over themselves to be involved in a select-field with a guaranteed minimum return of over $50,000.  But they’re not; they’re not.

As it happens, Ireland’s Graeme McDowell is the only major champion from last year in this week’s field of 34.  That’s right – PGA champion, Martin Kaymer is missing, so is Louis Oosthuizen. And current US Masters champion, Phil Mickelson, hasn’t played in the tournament since 2001 when he was tied 28th for a reward of $49,500.

As for Tiger Woods: that’s also a touchy subject. Though he was the champion on two occasions, in 1997 and 2000, he has not played since 2005, and without a win in 2010 he didn’t qualify for this week’s shindig.

It could be argued that it is very difficult for tournament players who happen to be family men to absent themselves from their children at this time of year.  Still, Jack Nicklaus missed the Tournament of Champions on only four occasions between 1963 and 1985.  That’s 19 out of a possible 23 appearances.  And there were occasions when he simply didn’t qualify.  In the same context, Johnny Miller played on 12 occasions from 1972 to 1995.

Where absenteeism among current practitioners is concerned, the Irish haven’t covered themselves in glory.  In fact there has been only one appearance by an Irishman in the event, prior to McDowell this week, despite the fact that Padraig Harrington qualified on three occasions, in 2006, 2008 and 2009.  On the latter two occasions, he would have been especially welcome as a reigning major champion but the pull of January at home proved to be irresistible.

As it happened, Darren Clarke could have played in 2001 as the Accenture World Matchplay champion from the previous year, but he opted out, quite understandably, after his wife, Heather, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  But he and Heather made the journey to Hawaii three years later, when Clarke qualified once more, this time as winner of the 2003 NEC Invitational at Firestone.  And he made the journey worth the effort by collecting $400,000 for a third-place finish behind Stuart Appleby.

Even in these straitened times, leading tournament players can pick and choose their events as if the R-word had never entered in our lexicon.  Indeed it would be difficult to find more compelling evidence of this, than the line-up at Kapalua.  Rory McIlroy would have been a very welcome addition to the field after his victory at Quail Hollow last May. And the fact that his picture adorns the official programme reflects his value to the sponsors. But he opted out.  On the other hand, Francesco Molinari is a grateful challenger as winner of the World Golf Championships in Shanghai last November.

For the line-up on the Plantation Course this weekend, there is the assurance of a really warm “Aloha” from their many Hawaiian admirers.  And the sort of response the average golf fan expects from the players was captured beautifully by 48-year-old Rocco Mediate, who can hardly believe his luck in being back in this event for the first time since 2003.  “We are pretty fortunate,” said Mediate.  “I always tell people I have the best job on earth.  Whether I’m playing good or bad, I have a great job.”

Judging from this week’s line-up, there are quite a number of his colleagues who don’t appear to have got the message.

- Dermot Gilleece

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