TOUR Insider: Kapalua's not exactly a walk in the park

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Steve Stricker has top-10 finishes in his last three trips to Kapalua but has never won the season opener.
January 05, 2012
Fred Albers, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Get out your hiking shoes and lace them up nice and tight. The longest, hardest walk of the year for PGA TOUR players, caddies and spectators is the Plantation Course at Kapalua.

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It stretches 7,411 yards and plays to a par of 73, but that's not the intimidating number. It's the change in elevation. From the 17th tee to the 2nd green is a drop of more than 800 feet. The course runs straight up and down a mountain, providing spectacular views but also testing everyone's cardiovascular system.

"I don't know if I'm ready for that," said Gary Woodland, making his first start in this event:

Forget about hot yoga, try a walk around the Plantation course if you want to test your fitness level.

Jimmy Johnson, Steve Stricker's caddie, offered advice for the newcomers:"Never pass up a cart ride and take every shortcut on the course."

Several tournaments require a cart ride from green to tee but this is the only tournament on TOUR that gives players a cart ride from tee to fairway. The fairway on the 4th hole is so severely elevated the players take a cart ride to the landing area. The other option would be to issue rappelling ropes and pitons to the golfers in order to climb the slope.

Paul Tesori is a veteran caddie of more than a half-dozen tournaments at Kapalua. "The key this week is speed of the greens," he said. "Your player has to understand just how fast putts are going to be going downhill and how slow they are back uphill. If your putt is downhill and down wind, you have to respect that. Stay below the hole and don't shortside yourself."

Tesori gave a demonstration to his player, Webb Simpson, on the downhill 532 yard par 4 fifth.

From 104 yards out, Simpson casually threw a golf ball toward the green. The ball traveled some 40 yards in the air then began rolling. It rolled another 60 yards onto the green and was close to hole high by the time it stopped.

That got Simpson's attention and is one reason why first-time players rarely win the Hyundai Tournament Of Champions.

"There is a lot of local knowledge here," said Stricker who lost in a playoff here to Daniel Chopra in 2008. "Sometimes yardage doesn't mean much here. You have to know the course and the wind."

It's a good thing players are wearing spikes this week; otherwise, they would be in danger of sliding right off the fairway and into the ocean.

Hiking boots are optional.

2012 PGA TOUR season preview

Champions from 2011 kick off the year Friday at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

IT'S ALSO WINDY: Gary Woodland may not be ready for the demanding hike around Kapalua, but that didn't prevent one of the TOUR's biggest bashers to declare the wide-open Plantation course a "perfect" fit for his game.

He said he doesn't even mind the Trade winds that generally prevail here (Kona winds are also a possibility).

"Obviously, with the winds, it reminds me of Kansas," Woodland said. "I grew up in the wind, so to be on a golf course where I can hit driver all over the place ... I can let it go a little bit. And the par 5s are reachable. I'm pretty excited."

Woodland, by the way, hit driver-6 iron to the green at the 18th during a practice round this week. That would be the 663-yard par-5 18th. Woodland said his normal 6-iron goes 205 yards.

DEADLY INSIDE 125: Since 2005, Steve Stricker has been faced with 1,233 approach shots measuring from 50 to 125 yards in the fairway. Over this stretch he's averaged just over 15 feet to the pin and is a combined 269 under par, converting birdie on 1 in every 3 approach shots from this distance. Four times he has ranked No. 1 on the PGA TOUR in that category.

We'll see if Stricker's play from that distance will pay off this week. Although he has yet to win the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in five previous attempts, he does have three top-10s, including a runner-up finish in 2008.

THE HAAS PROMISE: Reigning FedExCup champ Bill Haas told the media Thursday that he will never skip this event whenever he qualifies. This is his second consecutive appearance.

"For me, this is not a tournament I would want to pass up," Haas said. "Mainly it's a vacation spot. It's beautiful here. We have had a lot of fun. I came here for New Year's and had a little fun prior to this week. I would never miss it. Unless I'm injured, I won't miss it."

AND MY PICK IS ... Steve Stricker. His track record, as noted above, is good here. And he told me he feels like he knows the lines of the golf course off the tee. Plus, his game is further along at this point than in past years coming into this event.

Fred Albers is a course reporter for SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio and is inside the ropes this week at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. For more information on SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio, click here.

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