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Hawaii a tough opening to 2006 season

Only three years ago at the Mercedes Championships players were begging for a challenge after Ernie Els set a PGA Tour record by winning at 31-under-par in fast, calm conditions.

Now after last week's season-opener, they're saying it's too hard.

The new greens on the Plantation Course at Kapalua were firmer and smoother than ever, so pure that tour rules official Jon Brendle thought there was a chance someone could go lower than Els. Then it kept raining overnight, the fierce trade winds arrived, and a working vacation in paradise became all work.

"I think they've blown it," Kenny Perry huffed after a 77 in the third round. "It's a little unfair. Everyone has to play it, but I don't think it's golf, in my opinion. Who wants to shoot 75 or 76 when that's the average score? I tell you what, it's shot my confidence."

Beauty -- and in this case, a beast of a course -- was in the eye of the beholder.

Stuart Appleby brought his best golf to the Mercedes Championships and walked away with his third straight trophy by breaking par on all four days to finish at 8-under 284, then beating Vijay Singh on the first playoff hole. Singh finally kept mistakes off his card and closed with a 66, nine shots better than the average score.

But it raised questions about how the PGA Tour season should begin.

With quick greens that demanded the utmost precision, and gusts of up to 40 mph, it felt like a U.S. Open at times. Most of the players were rusty from their time off, whether that was two weeks or two months. Appleby was the first to concede that no one was at his best last week.

But no one wanted to see a winners-only tournament turn into the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, where 65 means losing ground.

"I think it's great," said Brad Faxon, who opened with an 82, closed with a 74 and tied for 23rd at 17-over. "A lot of people thought this course was too easy. I would think Mercedes would be a competitive tournament, not a 30-under romp. If 2- or 3-under is leading, you can have a handful of guys who can win."

Even par would have been good enough for seventh place this year. Carlos Franco shot that a year ago and finished last.

"Somebody is always going to play good," said Fred Funk, whose best round was a 76. "The guys that complain are guys like me who aren't playing well, or not scoring well. You feel like you're hitting good shots and not getting rewarded. Right now, I feel like I'm not a good player. I shouldn't feel that way."

Brendle, who was in charge of setting up the golf course, has heard this all before.

He empathizes with the players, but only to a point. It was obvious why the scores were so high, starting with wind so strong that Jim Furyk had a hard time standing up over his tee shot. The best story belonged to Perry. While hitting a provisional shot on the 12th hole, the wind blew his ball off the tee during his downswing. Unable to stop, he did his best to make contact, and dumped that 100 yards into the weeds. Thankfully, he found his original ball and made par.

The Plantation showed a rare quality of allowing 31-under when it's calm, 8-under when it blows.

With new greens, Brendle had several options for pin placements, but he didn't use many of them because of the wind and tough conditions. He kept the speed of the greens slightly slower.

"I don't think it had anything to do with the golf course," he said. "It had to do with the weather. When the wind blows, it shakes these guys up. Jason Gore played bad. Stuart Appleby played good. Happens every week."

Should the first event of the year be kind and gentle, or a test of survival?

"Playing well is a good way to start the year," Vaughn Taylor said after rounds of 74-73-72-71 left him tied for fourth. "Hopefully, this will sharpen me up a little bit."

Perry was so flustered that he said he would consider not returning next year if he was eligible. Mark Calcavecchia thought that was a little severe. After all, they're in Hawaii being treated like royalty. Last place paid $70,000. Every player got a free room at the Ritz-Carlton.

"I don't think anybody was expecting this kind of battle the first week of the year," Calcavecchia said. "It's a lot of work. But it's a great place to be. I'd love to be back next year."

January 10, 2006


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