Golf

Top four players absent from Kapalua

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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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Remember the halcyon days when the world’s two best players, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, opened the golf season with epic battles in Hawaii?

Kapalua used to be must-see TV, even in the middle of the NFL playoffs. A decade later, it has gone the way of puffy jackets, zero-down mortgages and Kevin Federline.

None of the top four in the world rankings will be in Maui this week as the PGA Tour starts its 2011 season not so much with a whimper — Jim Furyk, Dustin Johnson, Els and Geoff Ogilvy are in the field — but definitely missing the bang.

Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, as I like to say, can sell smog to Los Angeles, but I wonder how the folks at Hyundai are feeling about ponying up millions of dollars to sponsor a Tournament of Champions that’s missing, well, so many champions?

The man the world wants to see, Tiger Woods, won’t be there because he’s coming off the worst — and only winless — season of his career.

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But even if he had qualified, the current world No. 2 hasn’t bothered showing up in Hawaii for years, preferring to make his debut on his beloved Torrey Pines in late January.

It seems the $5.6 million prize money and limited field isn’t enough to get the G550’s wheels in the air.

The man who displaced Woods as world No. 1, Lee Westwood, won’t be in Hawaii, either. Apparently, he prefers the miserable weather blanketing northern England to the beauty of Maui.

And where is world No. 3 and PGA champion Martin Kaymer? Not interested. Neither is one of the game’s greatest young talents, world No. 10 Rory McIlroy.

British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, meanwhile, is preferring to stay in his native South Africa and compete in the small potatoes African Open.

And where’s the Masters champion? Phil Mickelson, ranked fourth in the world, is again skipping what is supposed to be one of the Tour’s marquee events.

What it all means is that of the four majors winners from last year, only Graeme McDowell will tee it up at the Plantation Course. The world No. 5 is also the highest ranked player in the field.

So what’s going on? Is this year just an anomaly?

I don’t think so.

The devolution of Kapalua as a big event is symbolic of a shift in power in world golf. The best players in the world, aside from Woods and Mickelson, no longer are Americans. Nor are they PGA Tour members. They play into Christmas on the European Tour and don’t feel any obligation to support Finchem’s tour as they take time off.

This isn’t likely to be a short-term issue as the best up-and-coming players, with the exception of Rickie Fowler, are from Europe or Asia: McIlroy, Ryo Ishikawa, Matteo Manassero and Noh Seung-yul.

This is the new world order.

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Robert Lusetich's book, "Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season," is available for purchase here.

Beyond that geopolitical shift, doesn’t it say something that Mickelson won’t play in Hawaii but will head over to Abu Dhabi in a few weeks? Woods is scheduled to also play the Gulf Swing, headlining at the Omega Desert Classic in Dubai. Also going to the Middle East will be, of all people, Steve Stricker.

Stricker’s a down-home Badger who would rather drive to tournaments in his pickup truck. He’s not anyone’s idea of a world traveler. The same man who, when asked by a reporter whether he would play in China the week before this year’s Presidents Cup in Australia, responded with: "Is China on the way to Australia? In a roundabout way? Not really?”

So why would a Steve Stricker make the long trek to the Arabian peninsula next month?

For the same reason all the other big names are going: for what’s euphemistically called on the European Tour a “promotional services fee." To you and me, that’s an appearance fee.

Woods will get at the very least his standard $3 million to show up. Given that he’ll be missing his son’s birthday, maybe the sheikhs even sweetened that pot.

Mickelson’s getting seven figures, while Stricker’s probably worth half a million to them.

Which leads me to the reason Westwood, Kaymer and McIlroy won’t be taking up PGA Tour membership this year.

Much has been made about this, but let’s look past the jingoism and the rather dubious rationale of wanting to support the European Tour for a moment. I’m sure some of their motivation is staying closer to home, but the 800-pound — or is it Euro? -— elephant in the room can‘t be ignored.

American tournaments aren’t allowed to pay for players to show up, whereas it’s commonplace on the European Tour. This represents the new paradigm in world golf. And it’s an issue the suits in Ponte Vedra Beach are going to need to address.

Will they allow American tournaments to compete on a level playing field to attract the best fields?
 

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