With a select field of 34, the organisers of this week's $5.6 million Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii thought it appropriate to base the first-round draw on strict criteria like world ranking and FedEx Cup points. Yet they still came up with Graeme McDowell and Hunter Mahan as the sixth-last pairing.
It should be an interesting reunion for the duo who carried the destination of the Ryder Cup in their hands at Celtic Manor last October. That, of course, was when the American suffered the considerable indignity of duffing a chip shot at the short 17th after McDowell had taken control of the match with a glorious birdie on the previous hole.
With new sponsors this week, the event carries the prestigious tournament of champions title for the first time since 1993. And the organisers were mightily relieved that McDowell decided to make the long trip to the Plantation Course at Kapalua so early in the new year, given their previous experience with Irish qualifiers.
Darren Clarke was expected to become the tournament's first Irish participant in 2001, as winner of the World Match Play at La Costa. Any prospect he had of playing, however, was scuppered by the crushing discovery that his wife, Heather, had fallen victim to cancer.
Still, the Clarkes made the journey in 2004 after the Dungannon man qualified once more, this time as winner of the NEC Invitational at Firestone the previous August. And it proved to be very much worth the effort when he picked up $400,000 for a third-place finish behind Stuart Appleby and Vijay Singh.
He then had the interesting if unwanted experience the following week of carding the same 36-hole score as 14-year-old Michelle Wie in the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club, where 140 left both of them one stroke outside the cut.
Since then, Pádraig Harrington qualified for Kapalua in 2006, 2008 and 2009 and declined on each occasion. And Rory McIlroy also opted out this year, having qualified through his victory last May at Quail Hollow. January with his family is clearly very precious to Harrington, but being able to turn down a minimum guarantee of $50,000 in Kapalua reflects the financial comfort of the game's leading players.
As a bachelor without the same family concerns, McDowell's reasons for being there are charmingly simple. "I've never been to Hawaii and I promised myself I'd go if I won a PGA Tour event," he said. Which came as something of a treat for the organisers since the event he won happened to be the US Open.
His presence as the lone Major winner from last year, means inclusion in a Pro-Celebrity Challenge over the first, second and ninth holes next Wednesday, when his partner on the ninth will be none other than Nick Faldo. Then with a first prize of $1.12m at stake in the tournament proper, success for McDowell would mean seven-figure cheques in successive months, given his victory in the Chevron World Challenge in early December.
Meanwhile, having renewed his PGA Tour membership, he is determined not to repeat the mistakes of his early years on tour, with regard to his schedule. "I take comfort from the way things worked for me last year, so I won't be changing a lot," he said. "But I'm adding the Northern Trust Open, simply because I love Riviera, which is a great course."
Hawaii has an inescapable appeal at this time of year, especially after the horrendous weather of recent weeks. But January golfing destinations need not be about sunshine, as the celebrated scribe, Bernard Darwin, reminded us in his charming essay Green Christmases.
He describes the boyish thrill of packing his clubs and then picking up other members of his group for the long, "infinitely leisurely" train journey from London to an unnamed destination in west Wales, which devotees would
know as his beloved Aberdovey. "Sometimes we start in frost and even snow," he wrote, "and then what delight to see it disappear to find warmth and a soft grey sky and a gentle wind as we near our haven. When we are nearly home, there is a certain hill up which the train pants more laboriously than ever. Once over the crest, we feel that we can almost snuff the salt in the air and the train rattles joyously down to the coast. It has happened to us once to travel through a white, snow-clad land all the way from London till we reached that hill-top and then, on the other side, to find a green paradise awaiting us.
"That was truly a moment when life was worth living; a better moment perhaps, since anticipation is always better than reality. And yet the golf is wonderfully pleasant. Ours is a fine piece of natural golfing ground, even though the best has never quite been made of it, undulating and rippling in a hundred grassy hummocks and hollows and noble sandhills, crowned with spiky bents, and little dell-like crater greens that nestle among the hills."
Happy New Year.
Sunday Indo Sport