World's best gather as Hawaii hosts elite opener

WHILE speculation on when Tiger Woods will return from self-imposed exile to competition remains a hot topic in the golfing world, the 2010 PGA Tour gets under way this week with the SBS Championship at Kapalua.

The elite $5.6million event brings together the winners from the previous season, giving each of them the chance to get a jump-start on their rivals before next week's Sony Open, the first full-field tournament of the year.

"It's a great place to come for the first week of January," said reigning champion Geoff Ogilvy of Australia. The 2006 US Open champion, who won last year's title by six shots, added: "Everyone loves it here. I think it's a fantastic thing and the course is perfect."

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Every competitor in the field is guaranteed a cheque at the end of the week and most of them arrive in Hawaii well ahead of the tournament to relax on a family holiday. The hilly Plantation Course boasts the widest fairways on Tour, ideal for golfers eager to shake off rust after a brief end- of-season break, and the warm weather is a major plus with plunging temperatures affecting much of the US mainland.

"It's great to get a jump-start on the season," said Open champion Stewart Cink, adding that once play begins players will be focused only on the golf and not their idyllic surroundings. "We're here to play tournament golf and this is a lot better than just practising at home."

The 28-strong field includes all of last year's major winners. In addition to Cink, Masters champion Angel Cabrera, US Open winner Lucas Glover and PGA champion Yang Yong-eun are taking part.

Two notable absentees, however, are world No1 Woods and second-ranked Phil Mickelson, each of them double winners of the season-opening event.

Although both Americans were multiple champions on the 2009 PGA Tour, Woods has not competed at Kapalua since 2005 and Mickelson has skipped the tournament for the last nine years.

"Obviously the tournament would love some of the bigger guys to play but I don't think they would go regardless of (where it was held)," Ogilvy said, referring to Woods and Mickelson. "They don't have any issue getting on their own plane and going anywhere they want to, so I don't think it's a matter of location why some of those guys might not play. I just think they don't want to play the first week of January."

First week of January or not, Woods is likely to be away for some time after announcing last month he was taking an indefinite break from the game in the wake of embarrassing revelations about his personal life. Woods was plunged into a media storm after suffering minor injuries in an early morning car crash outside his Florida home on 27 November before admitting he had been unfaithful to his wife.