KAPALUA, HAWAII (AP) - Steve Stricker is back on Maui, a familiar place for a guy who has won on the PGA Tour in each of the last three years to qualify for the season-opening Tournament of Champions.
Not so familiar are some of the guys he’ll be trying to beat.
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 Friday. 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.
Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are no longer part of the top 10 in the world ranking. 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, and nine of them are at Kapalua
“There’s been a transformation of players out here, and it was going to happen eventually,” said Stricker, who turns 45 next month. “We saw Tiger and Phil slip out of the top 10, and we have some European players coming in there _ young European players and young Americans _ playing well and stepping right up early on in their careers. So it’s fun to see.
“Right now it seems that young is good.”
His hope is that experience still counts for something, especially on the Plantation Course at Kapalua that is unlike any other course the players will see all year. The course was built on a mountain, offering severe changes in elevation, massive greens with slope and grain, and uninterrupted views of the Pacific Ocean.