Spieth, major champs give Kapalua a strong field

Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

St. Simons Island, Ga. — The start of a new year on the PGA Tour at Kapalua lost some sizzle when Tiger Woods stopped going after 2005, which was four years after Phil Mickelson decided to go to Hawaii only for a vacation.

And when the PGA Tour went to a wraparound season two years ago, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions was in an awkward spot. Yes, it was the first event of the year, but the season had started three months earlier.

A new cast of stars is expected to give Kapalua its strongest field in a decade.

Depending on how Jordan Spieth fares in Australia and the Bahamas over the next two weeks, the 22-year-old Texan could give Kapalua the No. 1 player for the first time since Vijay Singh in 2005.

Jason Day and Zach Johnson would give the field all four major champions for the first time since 2010.

Throw in Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk, Patrick Reed, Kevin Kisner and Brooks Koepka and that Tournament of Champions will feel like one.

Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry won’t be playing, which is not unusual. Kapalua tends to lose out on top European Tour players because their season doesn’t end until late November and starts up in mid-January in the Middle East, which is 14 time zones from Hawaii.

Still to be determined is whether Justin Rose plays. If he does, the world ranking points for the winner might be pushing 54.

It hasn’t been at that level since Woods was playing, and those ranking points are especially valuable in 2016 for Europeans trying to qualify for the Ryder Cup (five players come off a list based on world ranking points accrued) and for others who wouldn’t mind a trip to Rio for the Olympics.

Graeme McDowell is playing after skipping the last time he was eligible. Padraig Harrington is playing for the first time.

Race to Augusta

Along with seasons starting (Europe) and years ending (PGA Tour), the final month of 2015 represents a final push to get into the top 50 and lock up a spot in the Masters next April.

That points to Lee Westwood, who is playing in the Australian Open this week. Westwood is No. 56 in the world. Over on the Japan Golf Tour, K.T. Kim is the favorite in the Casio World Open. Kim is at No. 57 and not yet eligible for the Masters.

Some players outside the top 50 already secured a spot at Augusta National. Ian Poulter (No. 54) and Hunter Mahan (No. 63) both are eligible from finishing in the top 12 at the Masters last year.

First impressions

Graeme McDowell’s first trip to America was a recruiting visit to the University of Alabama-Birmingham. It was a harrowing experience — not the recruiting part, but getting through customs.

McDowell said he planned to stay four days because he was coming from Northern Ireland, and that would be longer than the standard 48-hour recruiting trip. His problems began when he was asked by U.S. Customs where he was staying and didn’t have the address.

“The guy said, ‘You’re not on a recruiting trip here, are you?’ I guess I would have been teed up to say, ‘No,’ by my coach because obviously it wasn’t within regulations,” McDowell said. “I said, ‘No. Just vacationing and playing a little golf.’”

As for the address? McDowell only had the phone number of a UAB golfer with whom he was staying.

“The guys calls him in front of me and says, ‘I have Mr. McDowell here. What is the purpose of his visit? Oh, he’s on a recruiting trip?’” McDowell said. “So now I’ve just lied to this customs officer.

“Long story short, it was no big deal in the end. But I missed my connection to Birmingham. I spent the night in Memphis and thought, ‘Man, what is this country all about?’”

French double

The European Tour is making the French Open as appealing as possible to its members.

Because of a tight schedule in an Olympic year, the PGA Tour put the Bridgestone Invitational two weeks after the U.S. Open — and the same week as the French Open, a strong supporter of the European Tour. For the first time, Europe will not sanction the World Golf Championship event at Firestone, meaning whoever plays it will not get credit toward the money list or Ryder Cup points, or even a start toward the minimum requirement.

Keith Pelley says those who play in the French Open will get credit for two starts toward the minimum requirement. The prize money will be increased by 500,000 euros ($531,000), and Ryder Cup points also will be increased that week.

The French Open has been part of the European Tour since 1972 and is celebrating its 100th anniversary next year.

Drop the puck

Wayne Gretzky has been a massive influence on Dustin Johnson over the last couple of years, especially during his six-month break from the game last year when he took time off to seek help for “personal challenges.”

Johnson and Paulina Gretzky — the hockey great’s daughter — had a son last January and plan to get married next year.

That influence, however, is more about life than the sport that Gretzky dominated. Johnson will watch more hockey than he used to, though only when he’s with Gretzky.

“I definitely watch it a lot more, especially when we’re hanging out at her family’s house,” he said. “Wayne keeps up with it pretty well, but we don’t watch it that much. Kind of flip back and forth between all the sports, especially right now this time of year. We’ve got every sport is playing.”

Is he watching during the Stanley Cup playoffs, when hockey is at its best?

“If I’m at their house,” Johnson said. “If I’m at my house, no. I like it, but I like going to the games more. Definitely been to a lot more games. I didn’t go to any games before I met her and now I’ve been to quite a few. I enjoy that.”