KAPALUA, Maui >> The debate going on for years at Kapalua is whether bigger means better.
PGA Tour officials showed up on Maui equipped with research on how the winners-only field could be expanded for the Tournament of Champions. But let’s be honest. This has more to do with names than numbers.
One name in particular comes to mind: Tiger Woods.
Woods hasn’t played since 2005, which is his prerogative. Phil Mickelson hasn’t played since 2001, though there have been island sightings of Lefty on vacation. At least this week he was spotted in Cincinnati to watch the San Diego Chargers.
It’s a mystery why Woods doesn’t play Kapalua because the Plantation Course requires so much more imagination, and it’s a course where how the ball reacts on the ground is far more important than what it does in the air. It’s a fun place to play. And he won here in that magnificent battle with Ernie Els. But it’s a long year, and Woods finds the winter to be the best chunk of time to get away. That’s why the European Tour members who play deep into the season tend not to come to Hawaii (Rory McIlroy last year, Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell, Henrik Stenson this year).
But take a close look at the 30-man field this year and ask any PGA Tour event if it would take this list of players — Masters champion Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, PGA champion Jason Dufner, Webb Simpson and 20-year-old sensation Jordan Spieth.
And with apologies to the PGA Grand Slam of Golf — four major champions, 36 holes, sheer exhibition — this is the most difficult tournament to get in.
“It’s the only one that’s winners-only, right?” Humana Challenge winner Brian Gay said. “It’s different. It should be. It’s always been different. I’ve heard people kicking around a two-year exemption, where you win and get in here for two years. That’s not a terrible idea that way. But I think it’s cool the way it is.”
The reason an expanded field is getting traction this year is because of the number of proven players who aren’t here. It’s harder than ever to win on the PGA Tour. Steve Stricker had one of his most consistent years ever, but he didn’t win. Neither did Hunter Mahan, Keegan Bradley, Jim Furyk and Jason Day.
The options the tour is considering are a two-year exemption to Kapalua for winning or inviting the field from the Tour Championship. The latter would require a slight tweak for the FedEx Cup playoff points, and those changes likely are coming for the 2014-15 season.
There were 12 players at the Tour Championship who didn’t win, nine of whom most likely would have come to Kapalua. That list includes Stricker, Bradley, Day, Furyk and Mahan, along with Brendon de Jonge and Roberto Castro.
The field from East Lake already is assured a spot in the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. Isn’t that enough? And would a 39-man field at Kapalua be that much different from the 30-man field this week?
“I think it should stay the same,” Scott said. “It would be a shame to change it. Some things have to change, other things should stick with what they are. My feeling would be it would lose some of the gloss on the tournament if it was not the Tournament of Champions. What should you call it then?”
OK, so let’s look at Plan B — the two-year exemption.
To include all the 2012 and 2013 winners would make an additional 25 players eligible for Kapalua. That includes Stricker, Bradley, Mahan and Day, along with the likes of Els, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler. It also would include a dozen guys who don’t bring a lot of star power. Five players from that list, such as McIlroy, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia, probably wouldn’t make the trip, anyway.
That would make for a 50-man field, and create more confusion than is necessary.
Golfweek magazine surveyed all 30 players this year on the possibility of change, and roughly two-thirds wanted the qualifications to stay the way they are. The decision ultimately would be made by the PGA Tour, with title sponsor Hyundai and even Kapalua weighing in.
“We have on a few occasions done some scheming,” said Steve Shannon, vice president of marketing for Hyundai Motor America. “We always come back around to there’s something unique and special about only winners. Certain guys choose not to play here, but we’re pretty pleased with a stricter and more consistent criteria for getting in.
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “There’s a lot of tournaments on tour. Some are special in some ways. That’s something that really makes this one different.”
Golf in an era of points — world ranking points, FedEx Cup points, Ryder Cup points. No math is required to figure out why someone is at Kapalua.