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Forward Press: A Tournament of Champions that actually lives up to its name

January 04, 2016

Mark Rolfing’s voice should be well rested. And not because he has been battling a rare form of cancer that had taken him away from his NBC/Golf Channel duties last August.

His voice is rested because the Trevinos paid a holiday visit.

“You do a lot of listening,” Rolfing said with a chuckle at the thought of his infamously talkative house guest, the Merry Mex, Lee Trevino.

That concise way with words makes Rolfing one of the best at the tricky task of providing on-course commentary. After all, we want insights and on-the-ground intel from these foot soldiers, but we also don’t want them talking over player-caddie dialogue or, heaven forbid, Johnny.

Rolfing will gladly talk about his cancer battle and what he hopes to confirm with doctor Tom Buchholz in two weeks as a successful fight, but mostly he’s euphoric over this week’s Kapalua field (“best in at least 10 years”), the prospects for 2016 (“an epic year in golf”) and an NBC tournament lineup that will take him to the usual stops (plus Royal Troon for the Open Championship, Rio for the Olympics and Hazeltine for the Ryder Cup). But Rolfing’s also not sugarcoating Kapalua’s inability to produce the dramatic ground game it once did or the precarious state of his beloved Hawaiian tour stops.

He’s excited about a tee installed last year to make the Plantation Course’s iconic 18th hole play closer to its original intent as well as other plans to more radically shift tees depending on winds. With a Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design relying on a prevailing wind, Rolfing has watched as the course plays in less compelling manner for professionals thanks to a different wind direction. And Rolfing should know as a long-time resident who started working as an assistant pro there in 1975.

“The ground plays so much softer than it ever was,” he said, noting that houseguest Trevino was shocked by how long some holes were playing. “The course was designed with three elements in mind: wind, slope and grain, and with those elements changed a bit, the course essentially plays backwards.”

That has meant a Plantation Course once known for crazy-long drives and wild closing-stretch finishes has not come close to its pinnacle and arguably one of best events in PGA Tour history: the 2000 Tournament of Champions.

As a member of the Hawaii Golf Hall of Fame, Rolfing intends to work the range this week asking players where they see the two-week Hawaii swing going forward. Even with a stellar field this year, the two events go “hand in hand” and may not work long term in January up against the NFL playoffs.

“You could make the argument that they work better in the fall, when Kapalua used to host,” Rolfing says. “As the world tour starts taking shape, it might help to get away from holidays with at least one more week to take pressure off of the resort at a peak time. Closing the course over the holidays is difficult on Kapalua. But Hawaii has always been an important part of the PGA Tour and needs to be going forward.”

Last August, Rolfing was not sure if he would see another Hyundai Tournament of Champions. The last player he said good-bye to in the Whistling Straits parking lot at the PGA Championship was Jordan Spieth, who he marvels at and can’t wait to see this week.

Rolfing had a malignant growth removed from his left cheek a few days later, on Aug. 13 in Chicago, and then spent the fall at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center receiving treatment once a sinus infection cleared. He was cared for by Amy Mickelson’s doctor, Tom Buchholz, who oversaw a very precise form of laser-radiation therapy.

Buchholz will run Rolfing through a few tests in two weeks and hopes to declare the NBC/Golf Channel contributor since 1997 free of the rare cancer. For now Rolfing will take it slow, working in the booth for the Hyundai and Sony Open before heading back to Houston to hopefully get the “all clear” update. In hindsight, the former conference champion golfer at DePauw University says that while his form of cancer is unlike breast or head cancers, where detection tends to happen faster, he wants us all to be more cognizant of our bodies.

“When I look back on it now I was having hearing trouble in left ear and there were other signs,” Rolfing says. “Just be as aware of your bodies as possible.”

Stars Arriving In Maui This Time Of Year…Really!

How refreshing that the 2016 Hyundai Tournament of Champions will be about players making the journey to Maui and actually appreciating the privileges of winning: a week at a world-class resort on the Hawaiian Islands with easy World Ranking points, easy money and a mellow start to the season. The narrative in years past has been about Woods, Mickelson and other notables passing after great seasons.

For the first time since 2005 the World Nos. 1 and 2 will be in attendance, as well most of the year’s previous winners and all four major-championship trophy holders. Miracles do happen.

Check out the stellar field here, which also includes some fun fresh faces who were victorious last fall.

And they’re not only showing up, but happy to let us know what a swell time they’re having in Hawaii, as they should.

Rickie Fowler, Paulina Gretzky and Dustin Johnson:

Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Champions Tour player Tommy Armour III, among others:

Brooks Koepka:

Danny Lee:

BMW South African Open

Headliner Charl Schwartzel has withdrawn after suffering serious stomach-virus issues that led to hospitalization, but the European Tour’s first event of 2016 moves on with a mostly South African field led by Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Trevor Immelman.

Golf Channel provides live daily coverage, with 7 a.m. ET starts Thursday and Friday, followed by a 5:30 a.m. ET start Saturday and a 5 a.m. ET start to Sunday’s final round.