First-timers ready for Tournament of Champions

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KAPALUA, Hawaii — Steve Stricker is back on Maui, a familiar place for a guy who has won on the PGA Tour in each of the past three years to qualify for the season-opening Tournament of Champions.

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Jonathan Byrd hits from the fairway up to the 13th green during the Tournament of Champions PGA Tour golf tournament in Kapalua, Hawaii, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)  Eric Risberg
Eric Risberg
Jonathan Byrd hits from the fairway up to the 13th green during the Tournament of Champions PGA Tour golf tournament in Kapalua, Hawaii, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Not so familiar are some of the guys he’ll be trying to beat.

Twelve players in the 28-man field are at Kapalua for the first time, more evidence of change on the PGA Tour. A year ago, Stricker didn’t know who most of them were.

Keegan Bradley? He was known more as the nephew of LPGA great Pat Bradley until he won two times, including that unlikely comeback in Atlanta to capture the PGA Championship in his first try at a major.

Jhonattan Vegas was the first PGA Tour member from Venezuela. Scott Stallings? Brendan Steele?

“I know them now a little bit,” Stricker said Thursday on the eve of the opening round.

The PGA Tour season gets under way today. It wants to get away from the NFL playoffs on Sunday, so the final round will end Monday just before the BCS Championship game starts.

The Tournament of Champions will be missing 11 players who didn’t or couldn’t make it to Hawaii. It’s the biggest list of no-shows since this tournament moved to Kapalua in 1999, though it’s a product of the changing world of golf.

Three of the players are recovering from injuries, five of them are based overseas and Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, just finished a whirlwind trip around the world that took him deep into December. Like many other players, this is his offseason.

That’s not the only change.

There are no Americans among the top five in the world ranking for the first time in nearly two decades. And even without the likes of U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, Masters champion Charl Schwartzel or Martin Kaymer in Hawaii, the young guys are making a strong push.

There were 13 winners in their 20s last year.

The winners get a small head start on the rest of the PGA Tour in a short field with no cut, essentially free money from the $5.6 million purse and a jump in the FedEx Cup standings.

It worked beautifully last year for Jonathan Byrd, who won his final event of 2010 to qualify for Kapalua, then opened his season with a win.

Byrd was walking through the Maui airport when he saw promotional posters of him on the wall. His son, Jackson, looked at the poster and said, “Dad, I think you’re famous.”

“I said, ‘At least for this week I am,’ ” Byrd, a former Clemson star, replied.


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