Rookies get their first taste at Sony Open in Hawaii

You can't ask for a better setting to live your dreams. The Sony Open in Hawaii offers a picturesque backdrop for the first full-field event of the year, and a good number of the players in the field will have a hard time believing their eyes.

The sights and sounds of Oahu are one thing. It's entirely another to play in your first PGA Tour event as a rookie. Many will make their debuts as full-fledged members.

This year's class of first-timers is a large one, 29 in all. There were 20 who made it through the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, another nine who qualified via the Nationwide Tour by finishing among the top 15 on the money list.

Of those 29, 12 players are from outside of the United States, led by five from Australia.

Starting Thursday, their quest begins to earn enough money to be among the top 125 at the end of the season. Gaining a spot in that all-important group means retaining their tour cards for 2004 and avoiding a trip back to the Q-school or the Nationwide Tour.

But here's the catch: Not all of them will get to play this week.

Those who graduate from Q-school or the Nationwide Tour are not automatically guaranteed a spot in each tournament. They are slotted in order based on their finish in each respective category behind those who were among the top 125 and hold other exemptions, such as tournament winners. Sometimes the field fills up before their number is called. Twenty-three of the 29 rookies are entered in this week's event.

That means Jeff Klein, 44, one of the unlikeliest of rookies, might have to wait to make his debut. A pro since 1988, he finally qualified for the tour in December. But he is an alternate for the Sony field and will only make it if a few players withdraw. If not, perhaps he'll get in at Phoenix or the Bob Hope.

Sweden's Carl Pettersson is also on the outside looking in. A winner last year on the European Tour and the first-round co-leader at the British Open, Pettersson was not assured a spot in Hawaii.

Among the rookies making their debuts in Honolulu:

  • Andy Miller, son of 1973 U.S. Open champion and television commentator Johnny Miller.

  • New Zealand native Steven Alker, who has played in Europe, Asia, Australia and on the Nationwide Tour en route to the big leagues.

  • Australia's James McLean, who won an NCAA title at the University of Minnesota.

  • Four-time European Tour winner Alex Cejka.

  • Two-time Australian Open champ and 21-year-old phenom Aaron Baddeley.

    They've all made it to the PGA Tour. But the dream is just beginning, with nothing assured.

    The Big Question
    Can the Big Easy do it again?

    Ernie Els has to be the favorite this week after his commanding performance in Maui, where he won the season-opening Mercedes Championship by eight strokes and shattered the PGA Tour scoring record at 31-under last weekend. Does Els slow down or keep pushing the gas?

    Els has never won the PGA Tour money title, never even led the money list until this week. What would two victories to start the year do? Even a high finish would give him a huge jump, despite the enormous amount of cash still up for grabs the rest of the year.

    "Let's see where it takes me,'' Els said. "I've just got to keep on working, keep my discipline. I don't want to go backward. I just want to keep going forward.''

    Five Things To Watch
    1. The field in Hawaii has nine of the top 25 in the World Golf Ranking, including four from the top 10: Els, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh. The others from the top 25 are Jim Furyk, Chris DiMarco, Robert Allenby, Charles Howell III and Rich Beem.

    2. There are nine past champions in the field: Jerry Kelly (2002), Brad Faxon (2001), Paul Azinger (2000), Jeff Sluman (1999), John Huston (1998), Jim Furyk (1996), John Cook (1992), Gene Sauers (1989), and Corey Pavin (1986, '87).

    3. Good iron play won the tournament last year for Kelly. He was second in greens in regulation, hitting 56 of 72. He was also 8-under on the par 4s, the best in the field. So is good iron play the key? Sure. But two years ago, Faxon won by taking just 103 putts while also leading the field in scrambling.

    4. K.J. Choi had a tough final round Sunday in Maui, but the South Korean is proving he can play. He won twice last year on the PGA Tour, at New Orleans and the Tampa Bay Classic. He can go low, as he proved with his Saturday 62 at Kapalua. After returning from an emergency appendectomy after his Tampa Bay Classic victory last year, Choi had top 10s in two of his last three events. He also tied for seventh at the Sony last year.

    5. England's Justin Rose isn't in Hawaii; he is defending his title in South Africa at the European Tour's Dunhill Championship.

    The Course
    Waialae Country Club, site of the Sony Open, is 7,060 yards. It's where John Huston set a PGA Tour scoring record in 1998, shooting 28-under-par 260. The course has since been changed from a par-72 to a par-70, but that didn't keep Brad Faxon from shooting 260 in 1991, although that was just 20-under.

    Regardless of par, this is another course the PGA Tour players can destroy, given the proper conditions.

    Last week in Maui, Els and the rest of the field dominated the Plantation Course. All 36 players were under par, and 11 of them were 20-under or better. In the tournament's previous history, only one player -- David Duval was 26-under in 1999 -- had accomplished that feat.

    Will the PGA Tour staff set up the course a bit harder this week?

    That's a dangerous proposition. Weather in Hawaii impacts results so much. If the wind blows, as is typical, that's plenty to keep the pros on their toes. Last week, there was hardly a breath of wind for four days, a rare occurrence. Waialae is vulnerable without wind, so look for plenty of low scores again if there is no breeze.

    Waialae holds an interesting distinction among PGA Tour events. It is one of just six tournaments on the schedule that have been played at the same course since its inception. The others are The Masters at Augusta National, the Ford Championship at Doral, Heritage at Harbour Town, the Colonial in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the Buick Classic at Westchester.

    The Contenders

  • Ernie Els: How can you not like the Big Easy? He has won $3 million in his last two starts and is bombing drives playing his new Titleist equipment. If momentum means anything in golf, Els has to be favored.

  • Charles Howell III: He tied for fourth last year at the Sony and is coming off a solid opening tournament in Maui. He played well at the end of 2002, and it would be huge for the 2001 Rookie of the Year to get a win so early in the season.

  • Jim Furyk: He slumped after an opening-round 64 at Maui, but he has typically played well at Waialae and won the tournament in 1996.

  • John Huston: A sleeper pick, but he did set the since-broken PGA Tour scoring record on this course five years ago and is on familiar turf. All six of his PGA Tour victories, including five in Florida, have come on Bermuda greens.

    A Longshot

  • Aaron Baddeley: The Australian phenom has taken some time to live up to his early promise, but he's on the PGA Tour now. A rookie isn't likely to win in his first start, but Baddeley will be looking to get the season started right.

    A Pretender

  • Rich Beem: The Beemer is one of golf's great stories, but perhaps he is burned out from cashing in on it. After winning the 2002 International and the PGA Championship, where he held off Tiger Woods by a shot, Beem went on a whirlwind tour of offseason events. Perhaps he hasn't had time to rest and reflect. Last week on Maui, he finished dead last in the Mercedes Championships, the only player in the field unable to break 70 in the easy conditions at Kapalua. That's hard to believe. Beem might be a bit off right now.

    Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com