Woods to skip PGA Tour’s Mercedes-Benz Championship

Published 11:19 pm Thursday, January 4, 2007

The PGA Tour’s “new era in golf” will begin with an old question.

Where’s Tiger?

Tiger Woods decided Friday not to play next week in the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship, the second straight elite tournament he has skipped. The Mercedes is only for PGA Tour winners from the previous year; Woods also sat out the season-ending Tour Championship in November for the top 30 players on the money list.

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And it takes some of the sizzle out of the tour’s launch of its new FedExCup competition, which it has dubbed a “new era in golf” in print and TV advertising campaigns over the last month.

Woods, who went skiing in Colorado with his family after winning the Target World Challenge on Dec. 17, said he did not have time to get his game ready and wanted to spend more time on vacation.

He ended last year winning six consecutive PGA Tour events, a streak that will remain on hold until Jan. 25 at the Buick Invitational in San Diego, where Woods is the two-time defending champion. He said on his Web site that the extra three weeks off “will give me much-needed extra time with my family.”

“I considered playing in next week’s Mercedes-Benz Championship, the official launch of the new FedExCup, but I just haven’t been able to prepare,” Woods said. “I usually spend at least one week working on my game before a tournament, and have been unable to do that this year.”

It was the second straight year Woods will not play the winners-only tournament. He missed last year to spend time with his father, whose health was rapidly deteriorating from cancer. Earl Woods died May 3. The only other time Woods did not go to Kapalua was in 2003, when he was recovering from knee surgery.

“Hopefully, everyone will understand,” Woods said. “Obviously, this was a tough decision because Gary Planos and his staff at Kapalua Resort always do such a great job with the event.”

Planos, the vice president of operations at Kapalua and tournament host, looked for bright spots on a day of gathering clouds off the west coast of Maui.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed, but we’ve got a championship to run next week,” he said. “Players and weather are risks in this business that I wish I had better control of.”

Woods’ absence, however, is a setback to PGA Tour officials trying to build momentum for its new FedExCup competition.

The tour revamped its schedule to feature a points race that starts at Mercedes-Benz Championship and concludes with four “playoff” tournaments at the end of the season, with the winner getting $10 million in deferred compensation.

The season starts Thursday without two of the most popular players in golf — Woods and Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who has not played at Kapalua since 2001. Ernie Els and Retief Goosen did not win on the PGA Tour last year, meaning the field at Kapalua will have only one major champion from ’06 (Geoff Ogilvy) and only eight of the top 20 players in the world.

“We understand that when Tiger chooses not to play, fans and sponsors are disappointed,” PGA Tour spokesman Bob Combs said. “It’s important to remain focused that the Mercedes-Benz Championship still has a great field and there are lots of great story lines, including Stuart Appleby going for his fourth win in a row.”

As for the FedExCup, Kapalua is the first of 35 tournaments in the points race for spots in the four-event playoffs. Combs said someone will earn 4,500 points next week “and that person will be the first FedExCup points leader.”

Woods will not have played on the PGA Tour for nearly four months when he returns at the Buick Invitational. His last tour event was the American Express Championship outside London, where he won by eight shots for his eighth victory of the year.

Woods has said his winning streak only applies to PGA Tour events. He lost in the first round of the HSBC World Match Play Championship in England two weeks before the American Express, and he was runner-up in two Asian tournaments in November.

He has never played more than 21 official PGA Tour events a year, and hit a career-low 15 this year, mainly because of his father’s death. Woods has picked up more off-course interests in recent years, such as scuba diving, tennis and skiing, and he got married in 2004.

In an interview last month, he said he wasn’t sure how the FedExCup would affect his schedule, but indicated he might play seven of the last nine weeks, including the Presidents Cup.