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PGA Tour pros set to take aim at West Coast swing

By Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

For most, Hawaii is a luscious retreat from the rigors of life. But for the next two weeks, PGA Tour professionals will be hard at work in the Aloha State. We should all be so lucky.

The 2004 scene is full of questions and at least one likely will be answered this weekend at the Plantation Course in Kapalua Resort for the Mercedes Championship. In each of the last five years, the winner of this event has finished no lower than 13th on the PGA Tour money list. It serves as a spring board of what's to come, just ask Ernie Els.

Els fired a remarkable 31-under par last year, destroying the field by eight strokes and never scored lower than 67. He went on to win the Sony Open in Honolulu the following week. When the majors rolled around, Els placed sixth in the Masters and fifth in the U.S. Open. When Tiger Woods defeated Els in a playoff at the Mercedes Championship in 2000, it kicked off one of the greatest years in the history of the PGA Tour. Woods went on to win three majors, nine victories more than $9 million in prize money.

But how will love affect the recently engaged Woods? His father, Earl Woods, once told him: Marriage is bad for your golf game. Seriously, other threats to his dominance lurk in the background, like Vijay Singh and Davis Love, III.

Both players won four times last year, only one fewer tour victory than Woods. Twenty-nine players won on the PGA Tour last year. Jim Furyk and Mike Weir continued their steady progress on the field, while others, like Fred Couples and Kenny Perry, resurfaced as contenders by winning two tournaments each.

Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara, Tom Lehman and Lee Janzen were winless in 2003. Can they turn it around? For players like K.J. Choi and Tim Herron, will the "left coast" be the catalyst for a breakout year. Choi's second-place 23-under-par score at the Mercedes last year would have been good enough to win that tournament each of the past three years. Herron placed third in back-to-back events last year - AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

If a West Coast swing is good enough for the PGA Tour, it's good enough for anyone. The temperature in Southern California, Arizona and Hawaii is regularly in the 70s and 80s during this time. And if planned in advance, the courses that host many of these professional tournaments are open to the public.

In Maui, the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort offers breath-taking views of the ocean and native plant life. The Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore design is known for its 663-yard finishing hole that - as crazy as it sounds - is reachable with two shots. From the tee box, the fairway is dramatically downhill toward the ocean and it plays with the prevailing wind.

The Sony Open (Jan. 15 to 18) is played at Waialae Country Club, a private club in Honolulu. But when the tour comes back to the mainland the following week for Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the host is PGA West - a semi-private TPC course. The Stadium Course is a cunning Pete Dye design. In the Skins Game in 1987, Lee Trevino tallied an ace when he dunked a 6-iron from 166 yards to an island green called, "Alcatraz." Most amateurs are turned off by its difficulty, but a good sense of humor and a few well-executed shots will make the course memorable and fun.

On Super Bowl weekend, the PGA Tour goes from one TPC Stadium Course to another. The FBR Phoenix Open is the Southwestern golfer's version of Mardis Gras. In four days, more than half a million people flood the TPC Scottsdale. This course is also famous for a hole-in-one, this one by Tiger Woods in 1997.

The short, par-3 16th hole is known as the rowdiest on tour, and most say it became that way after the raucous celebration for Woods' ace. The Stadium Course in Scottsdale is the polar opposite with respect to playablity when compared to its sibling at PGA West. But it's no walk in the park either. The challenge is avoiding the thick rough and the 72 bunkers.

In the first week in February, the pros will head to the coast for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. They'll play Poppy Hills, Spyglass and the tournament's namesake. A stern challenge to most golfers, Poppy Hills (a Robert Trent Jones, Jr., design) protects par with plenty of bunkers and tricky greens surrounded by water. Robert Trent Jones, Sr., designed Spy Glass, which was inspired by the novel, Treasure Island. It is the most difficult course on the Monterey Peninsula. The first five holes offer views of the Pacific Ocean before it heads back inland and becomes a more traditional design.

Pebble Beach is one of the most well-known and scenic courses in the world. The design is beautiful and devilish. Taking advantage of Pebble's first five holes is crucial before facing the Pacific and the prevailing winds. Nine holes play along the ocean, and depending on the wind, No. 17 and 18 are two of the toughest finishing holes in the world.

The Tour then turns south to San Diego and Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Club, home of the 2008 U.S. Open. The annual Buick Invitational uses Torrey Pines' North and South Courses. The North Course is the easier of the two, but both are as scenic as municipal golf has ever been with the ocean and cliff-jumping hang gliders in the background. The South Course will host the Open in four years and it's ready. The Rees Jones facelift before last year's Buick Invitational lengthened the course by 500 yards and nearly doubled the number of bunkers. San Diego-native Phil Mickelson called it the longest and toughest golf course he's ever played.

After a trip to the private Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, it's back to the San Diego area for the WGC-Accenture World Match Play Championships at La Costa Resort and Spa. The North and South Courses offer different challenges, but the PGA Tour uses a mixture of the two courses for its event (Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 13 through 18 of the North Course, and the back nine of the South).

Since the recreational golfer can't pick and choose, play the North Course. Its back nine is the club's most difficult test with water on eight of nine holes. All 36 holes are a good test of golf and it's tough to score when the pins are tucked around many bunkers and hazards.

During the same weekend, the Chrysler Classic of Tucson is hosted by the Tucson Omni National Resort and Spa. The 27-hole design is the local favorite, which speaks volumes considering the top-notch golf in the area. The ninth hole on the Gold course is the 18th for the pros and it is consistently ranked the toughest finishing hole on the PGA Tour. All three nines are surrounded by the scenic Catalina Mountains. The layout features 10 lakes and steep bunkers throughout.

The West Coast swing has catapulted many professionals to the top of the PGA Tour money list. While it can't promise to do the same for the amateur - in fact, the in-season green fees will do the opposite - all of these courses are highly entertaining, scenic and fun, and don't forget, tough.

Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

Brendan McEvoy spent five years with Times Community Newspapers, a Reston, Va.-based chain of 18 weekly newspapers covering the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

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