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Inside the Ropes: ToC field improves

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When only 27 of 39 eligible players showed up to play in the winners-only Hyundai Tournament of Champions last year at Kapalua, it appeared there was trouble in paradise.

The consensus opinion was that the tournament's smallest field since it moved to the Plantation Course in 1999 also was the weakest.

Title sponsor Hyundai was in talks to extend its contract, which runs out after the tournament this week, by as many as six years. The new deal has yet to be signed, sealed and delivered.

With the PGA Tour moving to a wrap-around 2013-14 season that begins in October, there was talk that the Tournament of Champions might be in jeopardy after kicking off every new year since 1953.

However, things are looking up, with Steve Stricker set to defend his title this week in Maui against a much stronger field.

"With some of the new winners, we couldn't be happier," Hyundai spokesman Steve Shannon said. "Terrific-looking field, some 14 of the top (35) players on the Official World Golf Rankings. That's really exciting to see.

"We don't have anything to announce (about a contract extension) ... nor will we here at the tournament. ... But I can say that we are having very, very optimistic, very fruitful, discussions with the PGA Tour.

"We like this tournament a lot, we like this golf space a lot. So all things look good."

The optimism stems from a field that includes rising and accomplished stars such as Masters champion Bubba Watson, U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, Players champion Matt Kuchar, Keegan Bradley, Dustin Johnson, Ian Poulter, Zach Johnson, Brandt Snedeker, Jason Dufner, Hunter Mahan, Nick Watney and Rickie Fowler.

However, there remains the big problem that the best players and biggest draws no longer are going to Maui to start the season.

Tiger Woods, who has never finished outside the top 10 in eight appearances in the tournament and won it in 2000 at Kapalua and 1997 at La Costa in Carlsbad, Calif., hasn't made the trip to Hawaii since 2005.

Phil Mickelson, who won it in 1994 and 1998 at La Costa, has played in the tournament only twice since it moved to the islands, and not since 2001.

Rory McIlroy, who established himself as the best golfer on the planet last year, has been eligible after winning on the PGA Tour each of the past three seasons, but he has not yet found his way to Kapalua.

Also eligible but not playing at this year are No. 2-ranked Luke Donald, No. 4 Justin Rose and former TOC winners Ernie Els, the British Open champion, and Sergio Garcia.

The only players in the field who are ranked in the top 10 are No. 8 Watson, No. 9 Dufner and No. 10 Snedeker.

"I don't know if there's anything that can be done," Stricker said when asked what it would take to get the very best players to show up. "Put it at the end of the year? I don't know. You know, I don't know if that would work, either.

"But it's special. A lot of guys feel like it's a special place to start the year when you do win and come here. But I understand the frustration that a lot of guys don't come here, and it's a topic of discussion every year here.

"Everybody is trying to find that break. And the schedule is so long and demanding at some times, especially toward the end of the year, that it's just hard to play them all."

The high-water mark in Tournament of Champions history came when Woods outlasted Els with a birdie on the second hole of a riveting playoff in 2000, drawing huge television ratings in prime time.

Mickelson grew up watching the Tournament of Champions at La Costa, not far from his home in San Diego, and was not happy when the tournament moved to Kapalua. He struggled in the wind on the Plantation Course, finishing outside the top 20 in his only two appearances.

Lefty won the tournament in front of the home fans with a par that beat Fred Couples on the first extra hole at La Costa in 1994.

Four years later, Phil the Thrill held on down the stretch to win by one stroke over Woods and Mark O'Meara, who both pushed him all the way to the finish with closing 64s in La Costa's TOC swan song.

Woods also won in dramatic fashion the first time he played the tournament in 1997 at La Costa. He was tied for the lead with Tom Lehman when rain washed out the final round, forcing a playoff at the 188-yard seventh hole, the only one deemed playable by officials.

After Lehman hooked his tee shot through the rain and onto the water, Woods stepped up and smoked a six-iron shot to within six inches of the hole. Game, set, match.

After all the luaus this week at Kapalua, the opener could use such a shot in the arm from Generation Next.

COMING UP

PGA TOUR: Hyundai Tournament of Champions on the Plantation Course at the Kapalua Resort in Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii, Friday through Monday.

TV: Friday and Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. EST on the Golf Channel; Sunday, 3-6 p.m. on the Golf Channel and 6-10 p.m. on NBC, and Monday, 4-8 p.m. on the Golf Channel.

Last year: Steve Stricker took a five-stroke lead into the final round, overcame a sketchy first six holes and claimed the 12th victory of his PGA Tour career by three shots over Martin Laird of Scotland. Strick, concerned during the short offseason because of a neck injury that caused weakness in his left arm, posted four scores in the 60s. He took control of the tournament by carding a 9-under-par 63 in round two, and he played his last 11 holes of the final round in 5 under after being 1 over through seven and seeing his lead shrink to a single shot. Stricker, who took home his only 2012 title, righted the ship with birdies on the eighth, ninth and 12th holes.

CHAMPIONS TOUR: Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai Golf Course in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, Jan 18-20.

TV: 7:30-10 p.m. EST, on the Golf Channel each day.

LAST YEAR: Dan Forsman overcame windy conditions in the final round by shooting 3-under-par 72 to beat Jay Don Blake by two strokes for his third Champions Tour victory after winning five times on the PGA Tour. Defending champion John Cook and Michael Allen tied for third, another stroke back. Forsman, 53, opened with rounds of 67-65 to build a two-stroke lead. He protected that margin by carding three birdies in the first 10 holes of the final round, and he overcame his only bogey, at No. 12, with another birdie two holes later.

LPGA TOUR: ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open at Royal Canberra Golf Club in Canberra, Australia, Feb. 14-17.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 12:30-2:30 p.m. EST; Saturday and Sunday, 3-6 p.m., on the Golf Channel Each day.

LAST YEAR: Jessica Korda holed a 25-foot birdie putt on the second hole of a record-tying playoff with five other golfers to claim her first LPGA Tour victory. The 18-year-old Korda, whose father Petr won the Australian Open tennis championship in 1998, took a one-stroke lead into the final round and held the top spot until faltering with bogeys on the 14th, 15th and 16th holes. She needed a birdie on No. 17 to shoot 2-over-par 74 and get into the playoff with Brittany Lincicome, Stacy Lewis, Julieta Granada of Paraguay, and South Koreans Hee Kyung Seo and So Yeon Ryu.
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