2010 off with a flourish

With hardly enough time to catch a breath, golf plunges into the new year this week on both the US and Europe Tours.

With hardly enough time to catch a breath, we are being plunged into the new year this week with new tournaments on both the US and Europe Tours.

In Hawaii, the 2010 US PGA Tour kicks off at the Plantation course with the SBS Championship while much further west, South Africa will host it’s third 2010 European-Sunshine Tour co-sanctioned event at the highly regarded East London Golf Club.

The Africa Open is a totally new event on the European Tour and brings to four the number of African based-events on what is increasingly becoming an international rather than a European Tour, including as it now does, tournaments in the middle east, most golf-playing Asian countries, Australia, New Zealand and Russia.

The CBC Championship, on the other hand, has a new title sponsor but is basically the same event it was before the Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) replaced Mercedes Benz USA for this season’s event.

Balmy Maui will clearly be able to offer its elite field of 2009 PGA tournament winners a welcome break from snow-bound, wintry USA. It should also help the tour forget, if only briefly, some of its recession-linked woes, but it is not likely to quell the Tiger Woods saga.

The fact that the World No 1 won’t be playing this weekend – and the reasons behind his absence – might well remain the hottest topic among his shaken colleagues this week.

In the meantime SBS Championship chairman Gary Planos is putting on a brave face and taking a positive stance on this week’s event despite the fact that the 28-strong field which is 75% changed from last year, includes just one former champion.

“We’re excited to have SBS as our title sponsor this year and going forward,” he told the Maui News on Thursday. ‘

“It is exciting because this is the 12th year that we have hosted this tournament here. The golf course is in excellent shape and, of course, we can expect tremendous weather.

Ernie Els set a tour record by shooting 31 under par when the wind didn’t blow much in Kapalua in 2003.

The course was designed to be protected by the trade winds and last year, in moderate winds, Geoff Ogilvy won at 24 under.

“This year there is a little chance of rain on Tuesday and Wednesday and then zero chance on the other days – I’ll take those odds,” Planos said.

Ogilvy is the only player in the field who has won an official tour event at Kapalua.

The other returning players from 2009 are Kenny Perry, Stewart Cink, Zach Johnson, Brian Gay, Sean O’Hair and Dustin Johnson.

The field has three players in the top 10 of the world rankings – Steve Stricker (3), Paul Casey (7) and Perry (10) and seven in the top 20.

The 2009 PGA Championship YE Yang is not yet in the Top 20, but the South Korean, the first Asian to win a major and the first man ever to beat Woods when the World number one lead after 54 holes, should be one of the golfers the fans will want to see.

The other three 2009 major champions are also in the field including Lucas Glover (US Open), Cink (British Open), and Angel Cabrera (Masters).

Of the players who won on the PGA Tour in 2009, only Woods, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson are not in the field. Mickelson has not played at Kapalua since 2001, and Woods is skipping the event for the fifth straight time.

“We have counted only seven champions from last year’s field,” Planos said. ”That’s how difficult it is to win on Tour these days and it means we’ll miss players like Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Stuart Appleby.

In South Africa Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke will top a field that also includes Irish neighbor Paul McGinley

A regular visitor to South Africa since 1991, Clarke is no stranger to the local circuit and captured the imagination of the Eastern Cape sporting public when he challenged South Africa’s Retief Goosen over the closing holes of the 2009 Africa Open.

In 2008, a tie for third at the South African Open and a fourth at the Joburg Open kick-started Clarke’s return to form after two difficult years sparked by the death of his wife

Clarke went on to capture the BMW Asia International and added the KLM Open to take his international winning tally to 16 and finish the season ranked 13th in Europe.

Although he did not quite recapture that winning form the year just past, he was unlucky to miss out on the season-ending Dubai World Championship when he finished 61st on the inaugural Race to Dubai rankings and failed to qualify by just one point..

Fond memories of East London and a strong performance at the 2010 Africa Open could put the Ulsterman back on the winning track.

A member of the Ryder Cup side in 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2004, Clarke was picked as a wild card for the 2006 matches at the K Club.

Always a formidable match-play opponent, he produced one of his most memorable performances by winning all three of his matches. Now back in the world top-120, the Ulsterman will not only be chasing world ranking points for the Race to Dubai, but also a spot in captain Colin Montgomerie’s Ryder Cup side at Celtic Manor Resort in Wales next October.

“I enjoyed playing in the Africa Open last year and had a pretty good result, so I’m really looking forward to playing in East London,” said Clark. “It will be fun catching up with everyone again and hopefully this time, I’m on the winning side of the final putt.”

The field will be further boosted by four 2009 European Tour champions in England’s Nick Dougherty, South Africans James Kingston and Richard Sterne and Swede Oskar Henningsson.

Dougherty captured the BMW International Open, while Henningsson won the Moravia Silesia Open. Kingston secured his second European Tour title in a playoff triumph against Anders Hansen at the Mercedes-Benz Championship in Cologne and Sterne achieved a triple triumph by winning the Joburg Open, SA Open and Alfred Dunhill Championship in one year.