By J.R. De GROOTE
Stephens Media Hawaii
The Big Island is an appropriate place to host the limited, big-name field that the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai boasts.
The 41-player field consists of the most recognizable names of senior golf, including World Golf Hall of Famers Ben Crenshaw, Hale Irwin, Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer, Tom Watson, Nick Price, Larry Nelson, Curtis Strange and Tom Kite.
The group has won a combined 586 events on the PGA Tour and Champions Tour, including 81 major championships.
“It’s a nice place to start off,” said Kite, who won the event in in 2002. “Hawaii is pretty awesome and the Kona Coast is one of the best parts of Hawaii.”
Brendan Moynahan, who serves as the director of golf at Hualalai, is thrilled to host the elite group.
“It is a really dynamic field,” Moynahan said. “There are nine Hall of Famers here, and you are not just a Hall of Famer because you are good at golf. Generally, players become Hall of Famers because they treat the people around them well and take care of the game. In turn, the game takes care of them.”
Five players — Esteban Toledo, John Riegger, Bart Bryant, Rocco Mediate and Khoki Idoki — are making their debut at Hualalai.
Defending champion John Cook won in thrilling fashion last year on the fourth playoff in tournament history. Cook sank a 12-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole to defeat David Frost, winning the tournament for a second time in three years.
Cook is looking to become the first player since Al Geiberger in 1992 to defend his title at the event and is also attempting to become the first three-time winner of the tournament.
Reigning Senior Player of the Year Kenny Perry hopes to keep the ball rolling from his wildly successful 2013 campaign, where he won three times, including a pair of major titles. Last year, Perry finished tied for fifth at 13-under.
One thing has become certain when the players congregate at Hualalai — low scores will be plentiful.
“It looks like the wind is going to lay down, which is good, so I expect some pretty low scores,” Kite said. “This course needs a little wind to make it a real challenge, and with the guys playing as great as they are I expect some low numbers this weekend.”
Over the last 13 years, the champion’s average winning score at Hualalai has been just over 196 — 20-under. On his way to the title last year, Cook was the third player to play all three rounds bogey-free.
“The tournament is always a blast,” 1995 US Open champion Corey Pavin said. “Personally, I’m going out there to do the best I can. I’ve been off for a couple of months, like everyone else, and I’ll be looking to shake off some of the rust.”
Pavin finished in five-way tie for ninth place last year.
This is the Champions Tour’s 18th year kicking off its season on the Big Island, and the tournament is one of the oldest on the circuit. It was first played as the Senior Tournament of Champions in 1984 at LaCosta Country Club in Carlsbad, Calif., where it stayed until 1994. The limited-field tournament then moved to the Hyatt Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico in 1995 and 1996 before relocating again to Hualalai in 1997.
For the players, the week has become as much a social event as an intense competition for the players. But don’t let the relaxed attitude that comes with the aloha shirts and shakas fool you — the players are all in relentless pursuit of the top spot.
“To us players, the competition is very important because we have been doing it our entire life. But the tournament sponsors do a great job with the social aspect as well,” Kite said. “This event is a critical part of our tour.”
Weekly grounds tickets are available in advance for $25 and a one-day grounds pass is $15. Youth 18 and younger are admitted free with a ticketed adult. Tickets may be purchased online at pgatour.com/mec or by calling 800-417-2770.