No Tiger, no Phil leaves weak Mercedes field

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The first of the year always brings new hope, but this year on the PGA Tour is different. It's not only a new season; it's being bannered as "A New Era in Golf," where fewer events and a playoff system are supposed to regenerate interest in the game. As Tiger Woods says of the FedEx Cup, "It's an attempt to try to make the end of the season more exciting and more impactful."

The beginning of the 2007 season is another matter. The FedEx Cup concept is also predicated on getting the superstars to play more, at least percentage-wise. Thus, you'd figure, the season-opener would attract the best players to the island of Maui, where they can stay at the Ritz, drive a Mercedes-Benz, check out the whales breaching, and hang with the likes of Sam Jackson, Joe Torre, Mark Wahlberg, Dennis Hopper and Matthew Perry. With everybody so laid-back and mellow, the Mercedes-Benz Championship is not a bad way to start the year.

But the story is not who is here, but who isn't, and that's got everybody wondering if something is wrong with this picture. Whether he's on a mountaintop in Colorado or free diving off his boat in the Bahamas, Tiger elected to take this week off. It was no surprise at all. He's an independent contractor. He has every right to do that. So does Phil Mickelson, who has been allergic to the trade winds and Bermuda grass since 2001. But here's Mercedes-Benz, ponying up all this cash, and the FedEx Cup officials, ponying up all this cash, and The Golf Channel, ponying up all this cash, all assembled here in the middle of the Pacific, trying to figure out if this is the way it's going to be.

This feels more like a soft opening than opening day, and makes for a weird way to roll out such a pivotal season: With your two most recognizable names not on the tee sheets. If there's a NASCAR comparison, and that's what the FedEx Cup series was spawned off, it would be like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart skipping the Daytona 500.

In Tiger's case, you can see where he's coming from. His father died last year. His wife became pregnant. He also won six straight to close out the season, including two majors. The problem is he also made a little cruise through Asia in November, buzzed in and out of Dubai for a golf course deal, and hosted his event in California, which he won. It kind of sends a mixed message, especially after missing the Tour Championship, but hey, he's Tiger. At the end of the day, all will be forgiven. He is the show and could spot everyone three months and still win the FedEx Cup going away. If Tim Finchem has Tiger holding that trophy, all will be copasetic in Ponte Vedra.

In truth, this could have been averted. Had the Target World Challenge been scheduled the week after Thanksgiving, as the Woods Camp requested, instead of two weeks from Christmas, it would have given Tiger almost a month of downtime before getting back to business at Kapalua. Instead, The Target was given Dec. 14-17, and Mercedes/Kapalua takes the hit. The other option, being discussed behind closed doors this week, is to give the Mercedes another week as a buffer on the other side of New Year's. Whatever it takes to get Woods here, to open the season, is necessary.

"You know, a guy like Tiger gets tugged at from more angles than any of the rest of us," pointed out Jim Furyk on Tuesday. "It's his choice, and obviously it's tough for any event that doesn't have him in the field, and it will hurt. But you know, he's got to make sure he takes care of himself first. And if that's the plan and that's the way to do it, then he needs to decide that and that's fine."

What really matters, anyway, are the majors. As Davis Love III said a couple of years ago, "They don't remember who won Pebble Beach, but they do remember who won Augusta." And to that point, Woods is already locked into April 5-8, where he will be going for his third straight grand slam title, and 13th overall. All else does not matter. Memo to the FedEx guys: The most riveting time in golf will be as Woods approaches the Jack Nicklaus landmark of 18 majors, not who takes home the $10 million.

Just as Woods is being Woods on this deal, Mickelson is being Mickelson. This has been the plan that's won three majors the last three years, so you can't criticize progress. From a legacy standpoint, he can now afford to brush off the criticism. Plus, he's got Tiger skipping big events now, too, so that gives him an ally -- and a buffer. What will be interesting is how the superstars schedule this year, how many they'll play down the stretch, and if the day will come when they end up skipping a Ryder Cup or a Presidents Cup. For now, we'll see Phil at The Hope, Tiger at The Buick and the rest of the boys here at Kapalua.

The field is relatively weak for a winners' only event. Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Retief Goosen failed to qualify, leaving Furyk, Vijay Singh (with a belly putter) and the Aussie contingent of Adam Scott, Geoff Ogilvy and defending champion Stuart Appleby as the headliners. At times like this, it's best to resort to humor, which Appleby did in his news conference on Tuesday.

"Having won three [straight] times, I'd like to think I have some intimidation factor on him and he's not interested in coming over here," said Appleby. "He was going for, what, his seventh official win? Maybe he didn't want to break his run. I don't know what I have on him. It must be some psychic power to keep him away."

Only problem, the FedEx Cup people, the Mercedes-Benz people, the Golf Channel people and the Tour brass -- they're not laughing.

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine. Do you have a question or comment for Tim? Send your inquiries to editors@golfdigest.com with the word "Rosaforte" in the subject field.