PGA’s first event of 2019 might make sense for Tiger

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NASSAU, Bahamas — Travel is far more an annoyance than downright drudgery for Tiger Woods, who has his own plane and can arrive and depart when he desires, without the hassle of overhead bin restrictions.

And surely he has nothing against the tropical locale that is Hawaii, specifically the island of Maui, where the PGA Tour has commenced its calendar year schedule for the better part of the past two decades.

But Woods has avoided that part of the world like he has security lines and tourist traps, electing to skip what is now known as the Sentry Tournament of Championships for the past 14 years.

Until — maybe, just maybe — now.

It is far from a done deal, and this week’s trip he is taking to Australia for the Presidents Cup could ultimately derail the idea. But Woods has not said “no” to the prospect of playing at Kapalua the first week of January, a departure from the past decade-plus, and something that has tour brass and TOC officials hopeful.

“We’re going to sit back after I’m done with Australia and really get back into the gym and build up my bod, get it stronger and get some weight on me and see where I want to start the year and see how many events that I should play,” Woods said Sunday following the final round of the Hero World Challenge, where he finished 17th in the 18-player field.

“I’m not going to play as many as I did this year. I played in too many this year, and that was from adding an event because I missed the cut at L.A. (Genesis Open) to qualifying to get in Akron (WGC-Bridgestone). Who knew that I could make it through all the playoff events. So all those events told a lot. I won’t be playing as much as I did (in 2018).”

And that, ultimately, is why Maui might make sense for Woods.

Woods stopped playing what used to be the season-opening event on the PGA Tour season following his tie for third in 2005. And typically, once an event falls off his schedule, he rarely has returned.

It got to the point where it made no sense to even ask. Woods, if eligible, wasn’t playing in Hawaii (he’s never played the Sony Open, which follows the TOC, either), electing instead to take a break after his foundation’s tournament (typically in early December) through the holidays, with his first start of the new year often coming at the Farmers Insurance Open (seven times) at Torrey Pines.

But as an about-to-be-43-year-old golfer with back problems, who again Sunday pledged to play less in 2019 than he did in 2018 to avoid the wear and tear and also be fresher when he plays, the tournament with beautiful Pacific Ocean backdrop has several things going for it.

The event is only open to those who won PGA Tour events in 2018. Woods’ victory at the Tour Championship, the 80th of his career, made him eligible to compete in it for the first time since 2014 — when he declined for the ninth time when eligible since 2006.

Most players relish getting into the TOC field. Not only is it a nice, relaxing way to spend the early part of the year, but the field typically consists of fewer than 40 players, has no 36-hole cut, and is a guaranteed payday, not to mention FedEx Cup points and Presidents Cup/Ryder Cup points.

Brooks Koepka finished 34th and last at Kapalua in 2018 (in the midst of his wrist injury) and earned $60,000. That won’t cover the jet fuel for Tiger, but this isn’t about the money.

At this stage of his career, those rankings points — FedEx, Presidents Cup and world rankings — are important. It is hard for him to pass them up, especially when he has already skipped the first seven weeks of the 2018-19 season and would be looking at missing three more if he waits to tee it up at Torrey Pines.

At 14th, Woods is in good shape in the world rankings. But if he wants to make his own Presidents Cup team and secure a position in the season-ending FedEx Cup playoffs — now just three events instead of four — missing tournaments where he is assured of points makes little sense.

That is why the WGC-Mexico Championship in late February and the WGC-FedEx Championship in Memphis the week following The Open in Ireland are also strong possibilities. Those tournaments have no cuts and offer all the same perks. (The WGC-Dell Match Play is more of a question mark due to its proximity to the Masters).

What about Kapalua itself? Although it was a long time ago, Woods almost always played well at the Plantation course. In eight appearances, he won twice, had a total of six top-5 finishes and was never outside of the top 10.

The course’s wide-open layout should serve him well, too. There is a chance he could be experimenting with a new driver, or working out issues with equipment, and a tournament where he doesn’t have to be at his sharpest makes a lot of sense.

There are, of course, negatives.

Kapalua’s Plantation course is a long, strenuous walk with numerous elevation changes. And it is traditionally windy, which can be a nuisance when a player is hoping to sort out his swing.

Ultimately, it will speed up his process for 2019. It means having to ramp up his preparation sooner, even if he chooses to make it a casual week. Woods is not one to show up completely unprepared, so that means getting focused earlier; typically that first week of the new year is when that might begin.

Woods was headed on a long journey Sunday night to Australia, where he has Presidents Cup captain duties week with the competition a year out. There are behind-the-scenes issues to plan as well as some promotional media obligations.

He won’t be gone long — Woods plans to be back in Florida by Friday night — but it’s a significant distance to travel, and that, too, might affect his decision on Hawaii.

There is no right or wrong answer here. That fact that it is even a question, however, is a significant departure from many years when Woods never entertained the idea.

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