HAS THE PGA Tourever needed Hawaii as much as it did last week, for the lid-liftingMercedes-Benz Championship? The latter half of the 2008 season seemed to beplayed under a dark cloud—no Tiger, a dud of a FedEx Cup, John Daly'snaughtiness and the economic turmoil leading to widespread industry jittersbeing the dominant stories in a gloomy fall and early winter. But all of thatwas forgotten, at least temporarily, at the (mostly) sun-splashed Mercedes,which rang in the new year with its intoxicating mix of roller-coaster golf,mellow golfers and endless Maui scenery, all of it playing out live in primetime for snowbound golf fans on the mainland. ¬∂ The Mercedes formula is soirresistible that its charms transcend the makeup of the field in any givenyear. No Tiger and no Phil? No problem. This Mercedes crowned a world-classwinner in Geoff Ogilvy (page G8) and showed off the two most-talked-aboutplayers in the game at this moment, Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas, who eachbashed their way around the Plantation course at Kapalua for the first time ina blockbuster Thursday pairing and then made spirited runs up the leader boardon the weekend. These young guns were two of the 12 first-timers in the fieldof 33, while only six players were back from last year, leading to a contagiousgee-whiz enthusiasm. "You can be grinding on the course, facing a difficultshot, and then you see a whale spout in the distance, and it changes your focusa little bit," said Stewart Cink, returning to the Mercedes for the firsttime since 2005. "That doesn't happen in too many places." ¬∂ The hostvenue is as much a star as any of the players, a course that demands moregeometry and creativity than any track this side of the linksland and makes foroutrageously entertaining viewing. Describing his bogeyless first-round 67,which staked him to a one-stroke lead, Ogilvy cited a series of varied ironshots: "Dinky ones into the wind and smashes downwind." Villegas saidof the course, "It's crazy and funky; lots of up and down and side to side;lots of wind and grain." Lest there be any misunderstanding, Villegascontinued, "I'm loving it." Mercedes rookie Ryuji Imada was another whowas duly inspired, breaking off seven birdies in a row during his firstofficial round on the course to fall one short of the alltime PGA Tourrecord.
During the thirdround Villegas shook off a 1st-hole double bogey with a run of six straightbirdies, but he wasn't even the hottest player on the course. That was ZachJohnson, who made nine birdies against no bogeys for a nine-under 64 that wasthe low round of the week. "It's simply a fun, fun course," saidJohnson.
The Mercedes hassuch an inviting ambiance that last week Rory Sabbatini was on the propertyeven though he wasn't in the field. Just as Billy Andrade has done in the past,Sabbatini brought his family on vacation to enjoy all the coddling andextracurricular activities that are built into the week. At any othertournament Villegas is a model of discipline and routine, but for his firstjourney to Maui he invited four high school buddies and their girlfriends. Thenight before the first round Villegas hosted a birthday bash, celebrating his27th, and then on Thursday evening he whooped it up as his alma mater, Florida,won the BCS championship game. (Kim, who spent two years at Oklahoma and donnedan OU hat during the round, typically talked a lot of trash in advance of thegame but was mute during the Sooners' disastrous fourth quarter.) Yet none ofthe above was the highlight of the long week in paradise. "One of myfriends proposed to his girlfriend," says Villegas. "She said yes,thankfully." With a nod to his entourage Villegas said, "I have twojobs here: playing golf and taking care of them." He didn't do the formerso well during a first-round 74 that included a ghastly 37 putts, but he foughthis way to a 12th-place finish. (Kim tied for second.)
Mercedes'ssponsorship contract is up after next year, and in a pretournament pressconference PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was noncommittal about thetournament's future. Said Justin Leonard, "If your goal is to try to getone or two players, you either move back to San Diego"—Mickelson'shometown—"or to Orlando"—where Woods resides—"but I'm still notsure you're going to get either one." So why bother, is what we say. Cinkspoke for all who did show up: "We all love it here. It would be a shame ifthis tournament were anywhere else. But ultimately it will be a businessdecision."
Yes, even allthose breathtaking views of Maui and the Pacific can't totally obscure the bigpicture. Still, last week was a needed reminder that things could be worse,with the players enjoying gleaming Mercedes courtesy cars and a $5.6 millionpurse. Ogilvy took home $1.12 million, and even Marc Turnesa earned $54,000 forfinishing dead last, 25 strokes back. "Most of the guys out here feelfortunate that we are playing golf and not working in a bank," says Ogilvy."I'm sure everybody has lost money in the market, and all this time theyhave been sitting there watching it dwindle. So everybody is happy to come backto work and start making money and have [their fortunes] go up instead of downagain."
Yet the Mercedesis an investment in something larger. Just as the Masters will always heraldspring, starting the season in Hawaii, on this course, is a chance to remindgolfers why they love the game in the first place—sunshine and blue sky (well,at least until Sunday's high clouds), green grass and the chance to reinventyourself a shot at a time. One player who particularly needed the Mercedes'srejuvenating powers was Ernie Els, 39, the future Hall of Famer who wasreturning to the Mercedes for the first time in four years following a run ofpoor play that had him questioning his considerable talents and often fostereda grumpiness that belied his Big Easy nickname. Els, who tied for sixth, misseda handful of short putts during a second-round 69 but never stoppedsmiling.
Afterward herepaired to the practice green, which is perched on one of the highest pointson the property. Els was grinding hard to groove his stroke but occasionallystopped to watch the sun set over the ocean. The following evening, after asloppy third round, he was back in the same spot enjoying the same view. Els,like plenty of others, understands that if you can't find inspiration here, youcan't find it anywhere.
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GEOFF OGILVY is happy to leave the hype for others
GEOFF OGILVY can make golf look so effortless thatit's easy to wonder if he's trying. But don't mention that to his colleagues."What, you think he has another gear we haven't seen yet?" asks AdamScott, his voice rising with incredulity. "The guy has won a U.S. Open andtwo World Golf Championships. I need a gear like that!"
Ogilvy may be the most underrated player in golf, buthis colleagues know how much game he has. "You look at his hands on theclub, and you can see how talented he is," says Scott. "His touch, hisfeel—it's amazing."
Ogilvy's short-game prowess will always be defined byhis heroics down the stretch during the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open.While everyone else was losing his mind at Winged Foot, Ogilvy saved par on thefinal three holes. His wedge play was just as dazzling at this Mercedes duringhis dominant, wire-to-wire victory. But Ogilvy, 31, is no dinker: Heoverpowered the Plantation course with long, precise drives and a beautifullycontrolled iron game. Over the first 54 holes he went 19 under while makingonly one bogey to build a commanding six-stroke lead. On Sunday's front nineOgilvy got a little messy, and a corresponding birdie binge by Anthony Kimsliced the lead to a lone stroke, but Ogilvy barely seemed to notice, let alonefret. He eagled the 9th and followed with five birdies on the next six holes,ultimately cruising to a six-stroke victory.
Coming in to the new year, all the hype has centeredon young would-be Tiger-challengers Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas and SergioGarcía, but Ogilvy, who is sixth in the World Ranking, has a better résumé thanany of them. "They are younger than me and have had some good runs—they'reallowed to be the talk of the Tour," says Ogilvy, who possesses one ofgolf's liveliest minds but zero superstar attitude. "I don't feel as ifI've missed out at all. In fact, the less I have to talk about that stuff, thebetter. So you can keep talking about those guys, if you want."
Suddenly, there is a more interesting topic. Untilsomething changes, Ogilvy is our early favorite to take the Masters.
Photograph by Robert Beck
ROLLING WONDER Players praised the scenic Plantation course at Kapalua. "It's simply a fun, fun course," said Johnson.
Photograph by Robert Beck
EARLY TIP Be sure to include Ogilvy in your Masters picks.