Golf Today Home Page All the latest golf news Coverage of all the worlds major tours For all your golfing needs Golf Course Directory Out on the course Golf related travel Whats going on
Worldwide Feature Articles

PGA Tour opens season in Hawaii

KA LUA, Hawaii - Say aloha to the PGA Tour, which tees off its 1999 season with Polynesian panache.

Look for leis, luaus and swivel-hipped hula dancers as Hawaii hosts a golf doubleheader, this week's Mercedes Championships on the island of Maui and the Jan. 14-17 Sony Open in Honolulu.

Expect ESPN to show candid shots of spectacular surf, colourful aloha shirts and tourists baking on sun-drenched beaches.

Perhaps even Don Ho singing a verse or two of ''Tiny Bubbles.''

''There are a lot of plusses to having the opening events kick off in Hawaii,'' says PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.

Not the least of which is beaming them back to the mainland on primetime TV so they won't conflict with NFL playoffs.

Fun-in-the-sun golf is sure to warm the hearts of freezing fans in the rest of the country.

The Mercedes Championships start Thursday at Kapalua Resort's Plantation Course, designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.

Phil Mickelson is defending champion for this elite limited-field tournament, which until this year was played in California.

The event features winners of 1998 PGA Tour events and major championships. Players must deal with the hilly course and wicked winds blowing off the West Maui Mountains.

''You can throw away the yardage book,'' says Davis Love III, winner of the MCI Classic. ''It's all about feel and playing the slope and the trade winds.''

The par-five 18th is 663 yards, the longest hole PGA Tour players will face this year.

The fairway drops 170 feet from tee to green, playing downwind and downgrain, so it's reachable in two shots.

What a way to start the new year.

Finchem credits Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano for helping put the Aloha State in the PGA Tour spotlight.

''We're really big on expanding sports in Hawaii as a major industry,'' Cayetano says. ''These events will help us do that.''

Cayetano will play in the Sony Open pro-am at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, as he did when the event was the Hawaiian Open.

''I never get a good shot off the first tee,'' he says, chuckling. ''It's so nerve-wracking.''

Opening in Hawaii raises the curtain on what promises to be a benchmark year for the PGA Tour.

Welcome to Finchem's new world order: bigger purses, more TV exposure and three new World Golf Championships.

''The PGA Tour is taking a definite step up this year,'' says Tom Lehman, the 1996 player of the year.

Lehman sees much more enthusiasm for golf these days.

''It's grown so much,'' he says. ''We have some good young players like Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and David Duval, as well as older stars. That makes fans want to watch.''

They'll have plenty of opportunity to do just that, not only at tournament sites but on TV.

All told, the networks will devote about 450 hours to PGA Tour golf in 1999, an increase of 25 % over last year.

Every tournament will have early-round coverage. It's a good time to be a golfer and a golf fan.

''With more air time,'' Finchem says, ''we'll be able to do more on the weekends with setting up story lines and getting viewers into the competition.''

Look for the networks to produce more profiles on contending players each week.

''Fans want to see a lot of golf, but they want to know about the players, too,'' Finchem says. ''We need to be able to tell their stories in meaningful ways.''

Purses have increased to $134 million from $96 million a year ago. That's a 40 % boost, biggest in PGA Tour history.

The Mercedes purse is $2.6 million, a jump of $900,000 over last year. Winner's share: $468,000.

''Bigger purses will create more excitement,'' Finchem says.

Each of the three World Golf Championships offers a $5 million purse, with $1 million to the winner.

The caddie carrying the winning bag, assuming a standard 10 % cut, will earn 100,000. The new events:

  • Andersen Consulting Match Play: The top 64 players in the official world rankings duel for five days at in the much-anticipated WGC inaugural event Feb. 24-28 at La Costa Country Club in Carlsbad, Calif. Imagine Woods battling Duval.
  • NEC Invitational: Members of the last Ryder Cup and President's Cup teams tangle in a stroke play format Aug. 26-29 at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
  • American Express Championship: A stroke play event including the world's top 50 players Nov. 4-7 at Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande, Spain, site of the 1997 Ryder Cup.

A fourth WGC, a team event, will be added in 2000. It will be played in early December at a site to be announced later.

Finchem doesn't expect the Tour's new direction to hit full stride until next year, but 1999 should be exciting.

''It's a two-step process into a new era,'' he says. ''We've spent about three years on this, so I can't wait to see how it plays out.''