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Aloha, Sunshine
MICHAEL BAMBERGER
January 22, 2007
The Sony Open isn't the first Tour event of the season, but for rank-and-file pros like winner Paul (Sunshine) Goydos, the new year starts here
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January 22, 2007

Aloha, Sunshine

The Sony Open isn't the first Tour event of the season, but for rank-and-file pros like winner Paul (Sunshine) Goydos, the new year starts here

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The new season began last week, at the Sony Open, the tournament the players all call Hawaii. The Mercedes-Benz Championship, the one Vijay Singh won at Kapalua in the first week of January? That's a dressed-up exhibition, winners only, another chance for the rich to get richer. The real start--caddie changes in place, new gizmos on the practice tee, virgin irons in the bag, the exquisite grind of the Tour, all in the name of staying out there--began for real last week. Charles Howell, who finished a shot back, said you start every season with all manner of golfing resolutions, but they're all on a short leash, one bad shot away from being discarded. The veteran Paul Goydos, a master of deadpan with a fitting nickname, had only one good week in 2006, a second-place finish in the Chrysler Championship, the final full-field event of the year, providing him with a $466,400 paycheck that allowed him to save his card. "I spent 10 weeks hoping that what worked at the end of last year would work in the new one," he said. It did. By winning Hawaii (with new irons in an old carry bag), he earned a spot in Kapalua next year and playing privileges through the end of '08. Happy New Year, Sunshine.

Goydos began his Tour career in the Greg Norman era, when the conventional wisdom was that the season commenced at Doral, the week the Tour moved from California to Miami. But guys wrote that only because Norman had the microphone and he didn't much like playing in the West Coast events. The truth is that golf has no spring training. The Tour's checkered flag, the players in Hawaii will tell you, blows in a trade wind.

For most of Sunday it looked as if Luke Donald would take his third career title or Howell his second. To win the Sony you don't have to beat too many name players. The field at the Waialae Country Club was filled with kids, not only the teenagers ( Michelle Wie, missed cut; Tadd Fujikawa, 20th) but also the fresh Q school graduates, the Nationwide upgraders, the various conditionals. Doug LaBelle II, straight off the Nationwide, tied for fourth and cashed a nice check for $204,750. (And isn't that what it's all about?) Stephen Marino, the quintessential pink-cheeked rookie with plenty of game, learned to deal with a crowd by playing his Thursday and Friday rounds with Wie--and made it to the weekend.

Brendan de Jonge missed the cut but provided the new season's first travel horror story. He was home in Charlotte last Wednesday when he got a call informing him that he had a spot in the field off the alternate list. He arrived at the Honolulu airport on Thursday at 3:30 a.m., was on the tee four hours later, went out and shot 69 in the first Tour round of his life, then screwed up the story by missing the cut. As travel stories go, it will soon get topped. For now, though, it's the best one making the rounds.

The kids were everywhere, Fujikawa (sidebar, left) most especially. "He has a personality where he feeds off the crowd," said one of his playing partners, Nathan Green. Not everybody does, and it bodes well for Fujikawa's future. Still, in an event that's out of a time warp, on Sunday your eye went to veterans like the 42-year-old Goydos, gray and necky (in his honest phrase, a "full-time father and a part-time golfer"), and to other grown-ups at other times in the week.

Most of the veterans, Goydos among them, stayed at the spiffy hotel, the Kahala, that fronts the golf course on one side and the ocean on the other. The Kahala is a testament to '60s glamour, airy and space-age modern, and you half expect George Jetson--or maybe Dave Marr--to emerge from the Jacuzzi. Corey Pavin was at the hotel and so was Adam Sandler, for reasons that had nothing to do with golf or Happy Gilmore. Sandler was on holiday, but the golfers were not. Predawn on Saturday, there was Davis Love III making the short walk to work. He knows the deal: If you want later tee times, you have to play better. Last year he won for the first time since 2003 but only after not making Tom Lehman's Ryder Cup team and not being picked for it, either. One of Love's goals for 2007 is to secure a spot early on the Presidents Cup team.

Love and Lehman played together on Thursday and Friday, but last year's Ryder Cup loss to the Europeans didn't come up. They closed the book on that last year when Lehman sent a six-page, handwritten letter to Love. Davis kept his return letter to a page. New year, fresh start. Lehman began the new season wearing red (shirt), white (puka beads) and blue (pants). For the first time in years he was using a conventional putter--he never won with the long wand.

On their 36th hole both golfers had to sink putts to make the cut on the number, Lehman from about eight paces, Love from about six. Their third, Tim Herron, was already out of it. Nick Faldo was working the booth for Golf Channel in the first year of a 15-year deal by which the cable channel will show the Thursday and Friday rounds of every PGA Tour event. Faldo, his playing career essentially over and now a full-time broadcaster (and next year's European Ryder Cup captain), knew from his own life the stress involved in those putts. You don't want to come all the way to Honolulu and miss the cut. There are as many battles on Friday as there are on Sunday. After Lehman made his putt, Faldo noted that Love's six-footer now was only harder. Love, never one to bang them home, sent his ball toward the hole at about a quarter mile an hour. Finally, it dropped. It was good TV. Herron, with the wife and kids, spent the weekend poolside at the Kahala.

Meanwhile, back at the Waialae range, parked right next to Vijay himself, there was John Daly, single (for now) and playing only on sponsors' exemptions. A teaching pro, flown in from San Diego, was watching his every shot. When was the last time you saw John Daly on a tournament range under the eye of a teaching pro? Maybe never. Happy New Year, JD. You can let it out now.

New year, new teenage sensation. ( Fujikawa, taking Wie's old spot.) New year, new TV star. They couldn't be more different, but this year's Camilo Villegas (for now) is the surfing golfer, Will MacKenzie, or Willie Mac, as Faldo has taken to calling him, a personable 32-year-old (that is, not a kid) who had the temerity to actually stop playing the game for several years to spend more time pursuing various water sports. He's a good golfer and a free spirit (by the modest standards of the PGA Tour), who revealed last week that he prefers those little ankle socklets over the conventional ones, which he finds cumbersome and too warm. He also said headcovers do nothing to protect metal woods and that he doesn't bother with them "because I'd lose 'em as fast as I got 'em anyway." He also said that he has attention deficit disorder, which he treats by letting his mind drift every which way on the course, then "hyperfocusing" on the shot at hand. He wears the brim of his hat flat, like many Latino ballplayers.

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