KAPALUA, Hawaii --- Any uncertainty about a new PGA Tour season goes beyond the absence of Tiger Woods.
The winners-only field for the SBS Championship, which starts today, has only 28 players. That matches the record for the smallest field since the tournament moved to the Plantation Course at Kapalua in 1999.
Defending champion Geoff Ogilvy is the only player at Kapalua who has won here before, a rarity at a regular tournament. Even more alarming is that only seven players from last year made it back to Maui by winning a PGA Tour event last year.
"Somewhat interesting, but the depth of our tour is so strong that I can see that happened," Steve Stricker said. "It's just tough to win out here in general."
Even when Woods was playing, golf was entering a cycle where no one was sure who might emerge as a potential star, and which stars would flame out. Could anyone have guessed the four major champions -- Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Y.E. Yang -- would be ranked outside the top 30 when they won? Or that Padraig Harrington, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas would go an entire season without winning?
"I think it's an interesting time," Ogilvy said. "Obviously, No. 1 in the world might be up for realistic grabs this year, depending on how it all takes shape. Phil (Mickelson) played fantastic at the end of last year. Phil's years have always started unbelievably and have often petered out. Last year, he actually got better, which is good for him."
Woods is out indefinitely as he tries to salvage his family from the fallout of his extramarital affairs. He last played Kapalua in 2005 even during good times. Mickelson has not played since he won the HSBC Champions in Shanghai, his second consecutive tournament that he won with Woods playing in the final group. Mickelson will start his season Jan. 28 in San Diego.
What to expect in 2010?
"This could be wide open," Stricker said. "I have a feeling Tiger will be back. He doesn't need many events to get back to the top spot, whether it be in the FedEx Cup or money list or whatever. You never know. He could be out the whole year. I hope that he's back sooner than later. But it does have that feel to start the season that it's wide open."
Stricker is coming off a career-best three victories that elevated him to No. 3 in the world, and even at 42, he doesn't see himself slowing down this year. He expects Mickelson to have a big year, and Singh to return from nagging injuries.
Ogilvy has reason to put himself on a short list of players who could emerge. He already has won a major at the 2006 U.S. Open and three World Golf Championships, including the Match Play last year as he zoomed up the rankings, only to falter over the second half of the year. It only makes him admire how Woods has played at such a high level for so long.
"I think when I play my best, I can play with anyone," Ogilvy said. "I have had periods that are a bit inconsistent where I can't compete with anyone at all. Or I just play average. And I have to get rid of those periods."
CHAMPIONS TOUR: In Kaupulehu-Kona, Hawaii, Fred Couples and Corey Pavin will make their first official Champions Tour starts at the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship, which starts Jan. 22.
The Champions Tour on Wednesday said Couples and Pavin were among eight players who have accepted sponsors exemptions to the winners-only event. The others are Ben Crenshaw, Hale Irwin, Bruce Lietzke, Mark O'Meara, Curtis Strange and 74-year-old Gary Player.
The tournament is the first of 26 Champions Tour events this season and will be held for the 14th consecutive year at the Hualalai Golf Course.
Couples is a 15-time PGA Tour winner and the 1992 Masters Tournament champion. He became eligible for the Champions Tour a week before captaining the Presidents Cup team to victory in October.
Pavin, who turned 50 in November, is also a 15-time tour winner, including the 1995 U.S. Open.