Updated: January 11, 2011, 1:09 PM ET

Much upheaval at PGA Tour's Hawaiian opener

Harig By Bob Harig
ESPN.com
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It is an annual refrain, a plea to give more bang to the start of the golf season. A couple of dozen tournament champions have convened in Hawaii for the PGA Tour's kickoff event, and again the season opener seems to lack the buzz that other sports enjoy when a new year begins.

But in the case of the newly renamed Hyundai Tournament of Champions, there was a bit of a sigh of relief on Maui that the event got new title sponsorship and appears on solid ground.

It might be a stretch to say that the tournament was in danger, but clearly something was amiss when SBS -- a South Korean broadcast network -- gave way after just one year of sponsorship.

"There was a lot of upheaval here in the last year," said Mark Rolfing, an NBC Sports golf analyst and Maui resident who has taken an active role in the tournament at Kapalua.

The Maui event was once a lucrative and attractive late-season unofficial event before becoming part of the official PGA Tour schedule in 1999 when the old Tournament of Champions moved to Hawaii. It had been renamed the Mercedes Championship in 1994.

David Duval won that first tournament; Tiger Woods followed a year later; and the event seemed to have a nice home, especially beaming those beautiful vistas back to an often snow-covered mainland.

But somewhere along the way, positives turned into negatives, not helped by the fact that Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods stopped going, despite being eligible.

This year, much of the focus is on the five players who are eligible but not attending -- Mickelson, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy.

Rolfing has long advocated changes to the structure of the event.

Last year, his foundation, the Mark and Debi Rolfing Charitable Foundation, was brought in to be the host organization. (It is a nonprofit, as is required by tournaments on the PGA Tour.) Then a deal was struck with Hyundai to take over title sponsorship from SBS, which raised eyebrows in 2009 by signing a 10-year deal to sponsor the event.

That seemed strange, given that SBS has no product to sell in the United States. It has the Korean rights to the PGA Tour, having secured those as part of the original agreement, and is still a behind-the-scenes player.

"They bought an apartment, and now they are subleasing it," is the way Rolfing described the arrangement.

And with that, Rolfing got Tournament of Champions back in the name of the event, which dates to 1953.

"I wanted some changes to occur here to re-energize the event," Rolfing said. "I felt like it had lost some of its steam the last five years. There has been a lot of talk -- and I was part of it -- about potentially changing the eligibility for the tournament.

"What we want to do is get this event back on track with a bang instead of limping into the season. And one of the big things was to go back to the Tournament of Champions. Why that ever changed … I have no idea.

"We had to make a lot of decisions about the rebranding of the event before Hyundai was signed up. They had to buy into the new thought process. The crowds had been down, and the whole buzz around the tournament wasn't the same."

To that end, Rolfing decided to make the risky move of not charging spectators admission this week. Although attendance was never outstanding, that is still a significant financial hit that has to be made up through other sponsorships.

Rolfing feels it is worth it to attract spectators, not just from Maui but also from the other islands.

The more difficult task centers on the players, Rolfing said. You have to get those eligible to compete.

"Thirty years ago, would Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus or any of those players have ever dreamed of skipping the Tournament of Champions? The answer is no. It was a must play," Rolfing said. "Of course, the world of golf has changed."

Rolfing said that FedEx will have a bigger presence as part of the kickoff to the FedEx Cup schedule and that he wants to "try to celebrate the beginning of the season."

"Think about the NFL. They used to all of a sudden start on Sunday in the first week of September. Now they have a Thursday night game, and there is a celebration to start the season. The players need to buy into kicking off the season."

There has been talk of extending eligibility to players who won in the past two years -- or starting the season as a World Golf Championship event.

Rolfing said he is open to any and all ideas, although his host organization is contracted only for this year at this point. There is clearly more work to be done.

USGA's change at the top

According to those in the know, David Fay's resignation on Christmas Eve after 21 years as executive director of the USGA came as a surprise -- although it was completely in keeping with his style.

[+] Enlarge
David Cannon/Getty ImagesDavid Fay had been the Executive Director of the USGA since 1989. A search is underway to find his replacement.

The news got somewhat buried because of the holidays and the fact that the USGA offices were closed and the golf world was taking a short break.

And that's probably the way Fay wanted it. He sent out an e-mail to colleagues, friends and USGA officials on the day before Christmas, announcing his retirement effective Dec. 31 -- or on a day when nobody would be at work.

Apparently, there is no backstory. Fay, 60, had been mulling this decision and decided to step down now. Mike Butz, a USGA executive, will serve as interim director, and a search will commence to replace Fay, which is no easy task.

The USGA is a complex organization that runs numerous national championships, the most prominent, of course, being the U.S. Open. The executive director is the day-to-day manager of the entire operation, but he takes his cues from revolving presidents who are elected to two-year terms and serve in a volunteer capacity -- although they wield enormous power.

Simply put, it is tough being in such a prominent role but having your boss change every two years.

Fay, nonetheless, received high marks and will be remembered especially for his push to get the U.S. Open at venues more accessible to the public. Before he took over the top post in 1989, the U.S. Open had been played at only one non-private venue, Pebble Beach.

On Fay's watch, the Open returned to Pebble three times, also going to Pinehurst No. 2 twice -- with another scheduled visit in 2014 -- as well as Fay's big push, Bethpage Black in 2002 and again in 2009. It also went to public Torrey Pines in 2008 and is scheduled to visit another public-access venue, Chambers Bay, in 2015.

Just wondering …

… whether the PGA Tour has ever truly considered delaying the start of the season. Four years ago, the tour went to great lengths to avoid football, specifically the NFL, in the fall by instituting the FedEx Cup schedule, which ends in late September.

But here we are in the first week of the PGA Tour season, and the Hyundai Tournament of Champions is going up against the first round of the NFL playoffs -- not to mention college bowl games. The interest in NFL football is certainly not waning at this time of year.

Same thing next week when the Sony Open goes against two games on Saturday and two games on Sunday. The next week, it's the AFC and NFC championship games on the Sunday of the Bob Hope Classic.

Wouldn't it be better to wait until the last week of January -- which happens to coincide with the open week before the Super Bowl -- to begin the golf season?

Admittedly, there are lots of hurdles to such a scenario. It provides three fewer playing opportunities for the players. It likely means some tournaments getting shut out. Do you still start in Hawaii?

Perhaps the procedural issues are too much to overcome, perhaps the lackluster start to the golf season is better than giving up tournaments.

But golf could use a bit more time to ramp up the enthusiasm for a sport that just ended a few weeks ago. And it would help to not have the football competition.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

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