Officially, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions is the eighth event on the PGA Tour calendar, but who are they kidding? The "real" season doesn't begin until Molokai looms in the distance from the first tee at Kapalua.
The countdown to the Masters Tournament is on with players talking about building their games and schedule towards the Augusta target less than 100 days away. With winter finally arriving in most of North America, a select field kicked things off Thursday in the Pacific tropics.
Aiken's Kevin Kisner enjoys a head start in the New Year on the tour's season-long points race having won the last official event in November at Sea Island, booking his first trip to the Plantation Course for the winners-only event. He played four fall events in a combined 58-under par to get the jump on his peers, enhanced by a runner-up finish in the WGC event in China as well.
But after a historically significant golf season distinguished by the new Big Three -- Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy -- passing the world's No. 1 ranking around, 2016 is poised to introduce a slew of fresh stars to the mix.
Many of them have made it to Maui this week for the strongest field since Tiger Woods stopped attending the year after winning his last Masters in 2005. Prominent no-shows annually dampened the mood for the traditional "season-opener" more than the volatile January weather in Hawaii.
While top-10 stars McIlroy, Justin Rose and injured Jim Furyk will sit out this week, the tournament still boasts six top-10 players including Nos. 1 and 2 Spieth and Day as well as No. 13 Zach Johnson to account for all the major winners in 2015.
"It's exciting there's so many guys here," said Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, who crashed the party at age 51 with a victory in Greensboro, N.C. "The top players are here. Obviously Jason and Jordan and all the guys that are hot right now are here."
The 32-man field reflects a vitality and enthusiasm of golf's new era -- players who are happy to be there and eager to keep the energy rolling from 2015.
"If I am eligible to play in this tournament and I'm not (here), I hope every single one of you calls me and bashes me for it," Spieth said at his news conference on Tuesday.
Despite all of his accomplishments last year by winning two majors, making a sustained run at the Grand Slam, earning a record amount of prize money and claiming the No. 1 ranking, Spieth is still the youngest of the lot at 22. But not by much.
Fourteen players younger than 30 won 23 of the 48 official tour events played in 2015. Eight of them are 25 or younger -- making grizzled vets out of McIlroy, 26, Rickie Fowler, 27, and Day, 28.
The fall season opened up the box on a new generation of talented young guys who will be challenging each other for major titles as guys like Phil Mickelson fade out and Woods tries to get healthy enough to compete again.
The first three weeks on the new season delivered 23-year-olds Emiliano Grillo and Justin Thomas and 24-year-old Smylie Kaufman to the winner's circle and the Masters.
The first eight events revealed six first-time winners in all including Kisner, Russell Knox and Peter Malnati.
"I think it's pretty cool, us being here together," said Thomas, who competed in junior events against Spieth, Grillo and Kaufman as well as the slightly older crowd of Brooks Koepka, Danny Lee and former Augusta State star Patrick Reed.
"The age that we're at and the amount of tournaments we've played together and all being winners on the PGA Tour is pretty cool."
Young guys having success is nothing new, as Woods, Mickelson and others proved upon their own arrivals. It's just that the volume of young talent capable of winning immediately at the highest level seems to have increased dramatically.
"I think it's a lot different," said Love, who got the first of his 21 career victories at Harbour Town in 1987 the week after turning 23. "You see guys like Smylie Kaufman or Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth, they come out of college or a little bit of college and they are professionals. They are experienced.
"I know when I was coming out, I was still learning the game, learning my way around. Finding myself. These guys are very mature, very polished. They played a bunch of AJGA events all the way up to U.S. Amateurs and Walker Cups and they are very, very prepared. They are more ready I think than guys back when I was coming out."
The familiarity with peers and shared backgrounds seems to have this new wave feeding off each other's successes.
"It seems like the younger guys are picking up momentum as far as building more and more confidence just off of seeing other guys play well it helps elevate their game," said Fowler. "And to continue, all of us push each other."
Day, Fowler and McIlroy were merely the first wave in golf's new golden age of talented young stars.
Defending Kapalua champion Reed is close on their heels. Only 25 himself, he already has four career wins in his first three full seasons on tour and has climbed to No. 10 in the world.
Reed seems poised to become the next breakout star entering 2016 off six consecutive top-10 finishes worldwide in a seven-week stretch starting at the end of October.
"I feel like my game is the best it's ever been," Reed said. "I'm definitely trending in the right direction."
All of the trends point toward golf new target trio of Spieth, Day and McIlroy. None of them intend to give any ground to their determined chasers. Spieth and Day, in particular, want to build off the best years of their careers.
"Everything has to be 100 percent full bore this year," said Day, who is coming off a three-month break after a scorching finish to his five-win 2015.
"I'm very motivated to get back to No. 1. I'm very motivated to win as many tournaments as I can this year, and to be a more dominant player."
And what might Spieth do for "an encore?"
"Doesn't an encore mean that the show is then over?" Spieth said. "I hope I've got like 40 years out here. ... To be honest, I'm not thinking of this as anything different. We're just continuing. The month changed, the year changed. When you write the date, that's about it in my mind." ___
This article was written by Scott Michaux from The Augusta Chronicle, Ga. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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