Weekend recap: Plantation Course defenseless

The number of strokes under par Els played the 16 par 5s in this week.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson weren't in Kapalua this week, but you can bet they felt the effects of Ernie Els' record-setting performance all the way across the Pacific.

Els got a $1 million head start on the world's top two golfers by winning the season-opening Mercedes Championships, but the manner in which he did it was even more impressive than his paycheck. The Big Easy shot a 31-under 261 to break the 72-hole PGA Tour scoring record in relation to par. He also goes to the top of the U.S. money list for the first time in his career.

Els' record start to 2003 came in the best scoring conditions the tour has seen in years on a defenseless Plantation Course. All 36 players finished under par, and the scoring average was under 70 every round as the normally disruptive winds stayed away from the Maui coast.

More tidbits and interpretations from the first weekend of golf in 2003:

Five observations
1. Where was the rust? Most of the 36 players at the Mercedes spent the short offseason enjoying time away from the game, but it didn't show in their play. Sure, the course lied down all week, but it was still surprising not to see a single player over par. Some of the remarkable statistics this week:

  • K.J. Choi broke the course record with an 11-under 62 on Saturday.

  • Two players fired 63s on Sunday that would have tied the course record were it not for Choi's 62 a day earlier.

  • In the four previous years the event was held in Kapalua, only one player finished better than 20-under. This week, 20-under was only good enough for 10th place.

  • Els had four eagles this week, one short of the record for a single event and only two less than he had all last season on the PGA Tour.

  • Els was at 25-under 194 after the third round, tying the 36-year-old PGA Tour record for 54 holes in relation to par.

  • And finally, Els' 31-under score shattered the previous record (28-under) for 72 holes in relation to par. Oh, and it also obviously broke David Duval's tournament record (26-under).

    2. So much for a final-round shootout. Paired together in the final group Sunday, neither Els nor Choi could get anything going early on. In fact, they had the worst combined front-nine score (1-under) of the 18 groups.

    Els turned on the afterburners on the back nine, though, birdieing five of his last seven holes to reach 31-under. Choi, meanwhile, played that same stretch in 2-over to drop out of title contention. He ended up tying for second place after missing a short birdie putt on the 18th.

    3. Obscured by Els' victory lap around Kapalua was the performance of Jonathan Byrd and Rocco Mediate. The 23-year-old Byrd and Mediate shot final-round 63s to finish tied for sixth and second respectively. Jeff Sluman's final round was also noteworthy. He pieced together five straight birdies on the font nine and fired a 9-under 64, good enough for a tie for 12th.

    4. The 18 first-timers in the tournament had mixed reults. Four finished in the top 10, but they also crowded the bottom of the leaderboard. Six of the last eight spots were occupied by golfers playing in their first Mercedes Championships.

    5. Defending champion Sergio Garcia didn't have the start to the season he had hoped, finishing tied for 25th at the Mercedes. A little bad luck contributed to his struggles. When Garcia tossed his putter against his bag on the 11th hole in Friday's second round, it bent slightly in the shaft, just enough to make it non-conforming. He used his 3-wood, 8-iron and sand wedge on the greens to complete his disappointing round of 73.

    On Saturday, Garcia switched to a belly putter -- it was his father's actually -- and had his best round of the tournament (66). But he fell back to 71 Sunday to finish well out of contention. He did, however, show improvement on the greens as the weekend wore on. He had four less putts in his final two rounds than he had in his first two.

    Topics for the water cooler

  • What's going on here? Are these ludicrous scores a sign of things to come in 2003? Are PGA Tour players that much better? Or was this a departure from the norm because of the ideal conditions?

  • Els already has a $1 million head start on the money list. How much catching up will Woods have to do when he finally returns to action?

  • Some players from the younger generation -- particularly Byrd and Luke Donald -- had big weeks, are any ready to step to the next level?

  • Els has won $3 million in his last two events alone, does he really need the new Mercedes that goes along with this week's paycheck?

    What it means for ...
    Rich Beem: Was his 2002 season a fluke? It's way too early to tell, but the Beemer had a tough time at the Mercedes. In conditions that were producing record scores, Beem was the only player who didn't break 70 at least once and finished dead last. Was he a little rusty, or is this a sign of things to come?

    Jonathan Byrd: The Rookie of the Year catapulted himself from 16th to a tie for sixth place with his final-round 63. If the mark of a champion is the way he plays the back nine on Sunday, Byrd might be ready for big things. He shot a 7-under 30 in his final nine holes of the tournament.

    K.J. Choi: He broke the course record with a 62 on Saturday, but he blew a chance at his third PGA Tour title with a poor showing Sunday. He particularly struggled on the greens in his final-round 73, taking 10 more putts (35) than he did the day before. He also missed a short birdie putt on the 18th that cost him sole possession of second place -- and a few extra zeroes on his paycheck. Will he be able to shake that off?

    Coming up ...
    PGA Tour: Sony Open
    The PGA Tour stays in Hawaii for this week's Sony Open, played at Waialae Country Club. It's the first full-field event of the season, and some of the tour's rookies will be teeing it up with the big boys for the first time. Jerry Kelly will be defending his title, and we'll see if Els can carry his momentum over from the Mercedes.

    Michelle Wie, the 13-year-old Hawaiian phenom who played in a few LPGA Tour events last year, will try to qualify for the Sony from the back tees on Monday. Late last year, Suzy Whaley became the first female to qualify for a PGA Tour event.

    European Tour: Dunhill Championship
    Justin Rose was the top non-South African finisher on Sunday (tied with five other Europeans for eighth place), and will stay in the country to defend his Dunhill Championship title this week in Johannesburg. He won last year's event at Houghton Golf Club by two strokes after going 66-66-65 in the final three rounds.

    David Lefort is ESPN.com's golf editor, and can be reached at david.m.lefort@espn3.com.