Back in the Majors

Times Staff Writer

It starts on the lush fairways lined with sugar cane in Hawaii and ends on the manicured greens carved out of the hills around Thousand Oaks, and if a PGA Tour season that runs from early January to mid-December sounds long, that's the 2006 schedule, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

The PGA Tour has the honor of kicking off the professional golf season, beginning today at the $5.4-million Mercedes Championships at Kapalua on the island of Maui. Tiger Woods won't be there, and neither will six others ranked in the top 10, but you have to begin somewhere.

Gary Planos, who runs the Kapalua layout for the tournament, didn't seem too upset about the hand he was dealt.

"We're not running a funeral; we're running a championship," he said. "We're going to show Kapalua to a freezing mainland."

Then, gentlemen, start your backswings.

There is much to consider when looking forward to what the 2006 tournament schedule might produce and there could even be a few important questions that are answered along the way.

Such as ...

How many majors will Woods win this year, and will his new boat like its dock?

Can Phil Mickelson win his third major in three years or will he suffer a dieting relapse and once again enjoy his In-N-Out burgers with the entire bun?

Is there anybody out there willing to stand up to Annika Sorenstam besides 19-year-old Paula Creamer?

Whose clothes would you rather find in your suitcase, Jesper Parnevik's, Duffy Waldorf's or Ian Poulter's?

The British Open returns to Royal Liverpool Golf Club for the first time since the '60s ... why? Will Paul and Ringo be the official starters?

There is no time to waste, not this year, so let's just get on with it. In no particular order, here are some topics, both major and minor, that bear discussing. Please play along.

The Tiger Factor

Much has already been said about Woods playing his first PGA Tour season at the ripe age of 30, the main topic being whether he'll get bored with the whole thing or if he's still set on breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles. Woods has 10, so he is still following the Bear tracks.

But there are other factors at work in the Woods camp, not all of them directly involved with golf. The health of his seriously ill father, Earl, is a situation Woods is closely monitoring during his brief break from playing the PGA Tour schedule, and he has been spending more time with his father in Orange County.

Woods is supposed to make his first tournament appearance of 2006 at the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines in three weeks.

Off the course, Woods has altered the way he does his business. He is skipping Kapalua for the first time without being injured in order to lengthen his off-season and keep tabs on his 73-year-old father. He is already out of the prime-time "Battle at the Bridges" series that's usually played shortly after the British Open.

There are hints that Woods may soon cut back on his corporate commitments, or at least change some of them. His Nike contract is up at the end of the year, but that sponsor isn't going anywhere, with the possible exception of the bank, so Nike can throw several more millions at him.

The Palm Beach Post reported last week that Woods is close to buying a $40-million, 10-acre oceanfront property on Jupiter Island, an area described by Forbes as having the "most expensive ZIP Code" in the U.S. He can dock his new $22-million vessel there.

Woods, of course, can afford it, with $55.8 million in earnings on the PGA Tour, $68.2 million worldwide and an estimated endorsement income of $90 million.

Any discussion of the 2006 PGA Tour season begins and ends with Woods. He won six PGA Tour events in 2005, led the money list with $10.6 million, won the Masters and the British Open and was voted by his peers as the player of the year for the seventh time in his nine full years as a pro.

Besides reclaiming his No. 1 position in the official rankings from Vijay Singh, Woods was No. 1 in scoring (68.66), No. 2 in driving distance (316.1), sixth in greens in regulation and fifth in putting.

But for Colin Montgomerie, who witnessed Woods' first victory at the Masters in 1997 from close proximity, the lesson best taught by Woods is all about delivering the ball to new area codes even farther away.

"I think we've all been taken in by what Tiger's done. And I think we've all been affected, the length he hits the ball."

Looking back at that point in Woods' progress, Montgomerie said Woods has achieved just what he thought he would.

"You mean to win 10 majors before he's 30? Yes, that's an achievement, definitely. There is no way he was going to do anything less."

Somebody is going to have to push him. Ernie Els is 37 and coming off knee surgery, Singh is 43 next month and can't go on forever (or can he?), Mickelson is semi-unpredictable and Retief Goosen has proved he's a shaky closer. Does anybody else think it's time for Sergio Garcia, 26 next week, to step it up a notch?

Three Stars Fading?

* Davis Love III: He's 42 in April, he hasn't won in three years, he has won one major championship since he turned pro in 1985, he missed eight cuts last year and was 95th in putting, and he's constantly battling injuries.

* Charles Howell III: Hasn't won in four years, wanted to be No. 1 in the world and right now he's not even the best Howell in the world. He ranked 149th in putting last year.

* John Daly: He's 40 in April, has won once in the 11 years since the 1995 British Open and what hurts more, he missed a 30-inch putt in a playoff that would have beaten Woods and won him $1.3 million.

Three Stars Rising?

* David Howell: He won two European Tour events last year, one in which he stared down Woods in the last group in Shanghai. This 30-year-old from England helped Europe win the Ryder Cup and may be asked to do it again in September in Ireland.

* Sean O'Hair: After only one year on the PGA Tour, the 23-year-old's world ranking is 38th. He won the John Deere and finished with $2.46 million as a rookie and far removed from his abusive childhood.

* Ryan Moore: The first player since Woods in 1996 to go from college (a four-time All-American at Nevada Las Vegas) to the PGA Tour in the same season without going to Qualifying School. He's 23. He was low amateur at last year's Masters and in 2004 won the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Public Links, NCAA championship and Western Amateur.

The Majors

Every year the four major championships seem to take on even greater status and this time may be no different, with one, well, major exception. The British Open will be played in July at Royal Liverpool Golf Club at Hoylake, England, for the first time since 1967. It was dropped from the rotation because it was deemed too small to host the competition, but after 10 acres were added adjacent to the course, it's getting another look.

To make the course tougher, there have been some changes made. The 17th and 18th holes will become the first and second holes, the first becomes the third and the finishing hole is the normal 16th -- a 558-yard par-five with out of bounds all the way down the right side.

Meanwhile, chances are the first major, the Masters, may be the most difficult of them all. After adding 155 yards and changing six holes, Augusta National measures 7,445 yards, it's the second-longest major venue in history, and it's tighter than ever before.

Woods has clearly taken notice.

"What's scary is since 2002 when they made the big change [285 yards added, nine holes altered], we have yet to see it dry for a tournament," he said. "We played the practice rounds in 2005 with it lightning [fast] and then all of a sudden it dumped rain again the first day.

"It'll be interesting to see if we can break par if it stays dry the entire week."

The U.S. Open will be played at venerable Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., which hasn't staged an Open since Fuzzy Zoeller beat Greg Norman in a playoff in 1984. And the PGA Championship also returns to a classic major venue, Medinah Country Club near Chicago, where Woods won his first PGA Championship in 1999 by one shot over a 19-year-old Garcia.

Ryder Cup Update

There has been a slight change in the game plan for the Ryder Cup, which is scheduled for September in Ireland at the K Club. The U.S. is definitely going in as the underdog, and nothing will change that by September. No one will bleat that the U.S. team is actually the best on paper, because that's what they have been saying a lot in recent matches and that assessment proved to be as worthless as the paper it was written on.

Nevertheless, with the U.S. losing the last two Ryder Cup matches, including an 18 1/2 -9 1/2 defeat in 2004 that was the worst U.S. loss since the competition began in 1927, there will be a greater importance placed on this year's matches. That can mean just one thing: more talk about camaraderie, togetherness and chemistry. For U.S. captain Tom Lehman, here's one piece of advice: Tiger and Phil together? Forget about it.

Hot Tournaments

And how do they become so? Woods plays in them. Look for him to play the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai in November and the HSBC World Match Play Championship in England in September, and possibly entering into some sort of business arrangement with the London-based financial group.

Other "hot" tournaments, besides the majors, include Torrey Pines, the Byron Nelson, the Deutsche Bank and the Memorial. Woods, of course, plays them all, but the overall strength of field is a huge plus for each one of them.

Cold Tournaments

They're Tigerless. This week's season-opening Mercedes Championship is so watered down it looks like consomme. Woods, Mickelson, Els, Goosen aren't playing in the winners-only tournament, which has only three top-10 players in the field of 28: No. 2 Singh, No. 6 Garcia and No. 7 Jim Furyk.

Other "cold" tournaments include the Honda Classic, the John Deere, the Bell Canadian Open and the Chrysler Championship of Greensboro. The Bob Hope could be stuck in this group because it never gets Woods, but it does get high marks for tinkering with its lineup venues, its perfect greens, its usually good winners and its breathtaking low scores (remember David Duval's 59?) that put the players in good moods ... for a while.

Let's Play Clue

How do we know that Woods isn't going to play in the AT&T; Pebble Beach Pro-Am? Invitations were sent out this week that he's hosting the dedication ceremony in Anaheim of the Tiger Woods Learning Center on Feb. 10, the same day as the second round at Pebble Beach.

LPGA Update

The new commissioner, Carolyn Bivens, might have a hard time replacing Ty Votaw, but at least she's off to a good start, coming up with the right decision in her first major ruling that allowed Morgan Pressel to join the LPGA Tour early at 17.

The rest of the outlook is unclear, though. Sure, Sorenstam rules supreme and she just produced one of her greatest seasons ever with 10 victories, but she turns 36 this year and the kids are coming on strong. Besides Pressel, there are precocious teenagers Creamer and Michelle Wie on the scene, but Wie didn't join the LPGA Tour when she turned pro in October, the week before her 16th birthday. It may turn out that the LPGA Tour needs Wie a lot more than she needs the LPGA Tour.

The factions out there do not add up to great television ratings, and that isn't going to help the purses: Sorenstam in one corner, the teens in another, the South Korean players who are talented but not well known to the U.S. audience in still another and U.S. players such as Cristie Kerr and Natalie Gulbis trying to get over the hump.

Champions Tour Update

Can anybody name the winners of last year's majors? Or what the names of the majors are? (Besides the U.S. Open). The results are becoming irrelevant and the fun quotient is way down as the former Senior PGA Tour steadily moves away from a Nostalgia Format into a Competition Format. Tom Watson and Hale Irwin have their work cut out for them, again.

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