PGA gets into the swing

KEN FIDLIN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:24 AM ET

Aside from being golf's opening tournament of the season, the Mercedes Championship was always one of the primo stops on the PGA Tour.

The exotic locale, a high end sponsor and the happy circumstance of having to win a tournament to get in all lent a special cachet.

So how did this prestige stop become the easiest tournament to win?

The season-opener is always a short field but this one is even more compact than most. With world No. 1 Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Adam Scott all taking a pass, there are only 31 players looking to get an early jump on the season.

"Wow, I never thought of it that way," Mark Calcavecchia said. "There's 31 guys here and there's 30 at the Tour Championship but Tiger and Phil aren't here so that increases your chances of winning greatly.

"And a lot of guys are kind of rusty. Quite a few of the guys took some time off and then (the golf course) is quite unique so anybody who hasn't played here is probably at a disadvantage. At least six or seven (players) just flat out aren't going to play good so then you're down to, say, 22 players you've got to beat.

"When you look at it that way, it increases your chances to win."

Among the fortunate 31 are Canadians Mike Weir and Stephen Ames, who recently purchased a time share at Kapalua.

Weir approaches the 2008 season, coming off a late-season win at the Frys Championship and his heady singles victory over Woods at the Presidents Cup. This followed a season of transition as Weir adopted a new swing technique.

"It's gratifying to see how it all came together," he writes in his season review on his website. "At the end of 2006, I made some big changes, bringing on two new coaches in Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett.

"With that, of course, was a new swing and lots and lots of time hitting balls and trying to ingrain the new movement. There was a lot of hard work but I never doubted I was on the right path.

"Perhaps the best part of it all was that for the first time in a long time, I was healthy and not suffering any neck or back pain. That alone allowed me to practice a lot more than I have in recent years. It used to be that I'd need lots of Advil and my chiropractor on call 24-7 just to hit a couple of buckets of balls."

Ames qualified for the Mercedes by winning the final tournament of the season, The Childrens Miracle Network event in Orlando and now that he's a Kapalua part-time resident, must be considered a real contender to win the Mercedes.

The Mercedes is also the kickoff event for players to accumulate FedEx Cup points toward the second annual season-ending playoff series. Because the Ryder Cup is scheduled in the third week of September, the season-ending Tour Championship has been delayed until the final weekend of September.

The other major change in the FedEx program is that most of the first-prize money of $10 million will be paid in cash. Last year, the $10 million was paid out as an annuity.

Woods, the runaway winner of player of the year honors in 2007 is not scheduled to make his season debut until the Tour gets to San Diego for the Buick Invitational on January 24.

Mickelson is also scheduled to make his first start of the year in San Diego.

This also marks the first season PGA Tour players will be tested for drugs.

"I looked at what's legal and what isn't," Calcavecchia said. "It's just common sense stuff. I need to back off the ibuprofen for my back pain on tournament days.

"Certainly nobody's going to accuse me of doping up. I'm the fattest, weakest player out here. I can bench press about 40 pounds."

One thing that will be missing from the PGA Tour this year will be an appearance by Michelle Wie.

After her disastrous 2007 season, partly due to injuries to both wrists and partly due to poor management decisions, Wie is intending to concentrate on establishing herself on the LPGA Tour.

"She realizes the year was a debacle in every way, on the course and PR-wise," David Leadbetter, her coach, said. "She's healthier than she has been in more than a year. She is starting to get it back, and getting into good shape."


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