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Golf-Players in paradise for PGA Tour season opener

Bubba Watson of the U.S. tees off on the second hole during the second round of the World Challenge golf tournament in Thousand Oaks, Califo
Bubba Watson of the U.S. tees off on the second hole during the second round of the World Challenge golf tournament in Thousand Oaks, Califo

(Reuters) - If winning breeds winning, then the picturesque Hawaiian island of Maui is a paradise in more ways than one for the select group of players competing at this week's $5.7 million Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

The only way to qualify for the elite field of 30 in the PGA Tour's season-opening event was through victory on the U.S. circuit last year and, with no cut and a guaranteed check after Monday's final round, the pickings are certainly favorable.

"It's always great to be here," American Hunter Mahan, a twice champion on the 2012 PGA Tour, told reporters at the Kapalua Resort while preparing for Friday's opening round.

"Obviously you won on the PGA Tour the year before so it's a great start and every player enjoys coming here and wants to start here.

"It's exciting but it's also crazy ... I feel like the year never really ended last year, it just kind of keeps on going. But it's certainly fun to be here."

Masters champion Bubba Watson agreed.

"Who would not want to come to Maui and play golf?" the American left-hander smiled.

"Ride in a golf cart in the pro-ams and practice rounds wearing shorts and then the tournament starts and you have to walk. But other than that it's great.

"A great time for the family, hanging out with friends and seeing the scenery. Playing the golf course is a challenge," Watson said of the par-73, 7,411-yard Plantation layout, "but it's a fun time to start off the year here in Maui."

DOWN TIME

Many of the players competing at Kapalua make the most of what time they have away from the golf course by surfing, swimming and taking the ever popular whale-watching cruises but Mahan said he was unlikely to follow suit.

"I don't particularly like the water that much," Mahan said. "I get seasick pretty easily, so I won't be out in the water too much.

"There's a hundred different things you can do here. At the same time, this is great weather and I'm trying to work on my game a little bit and make sure I get enough time for that."

While the Maui attractions are certainly plentiful for the competitors and their families, seven leading players who had qualified for the PGA Tour's season-opener have opted not to travel to Hawaii, mainly for tournament scheduling reasons.

Those notable absentees are world number one Rory McIlroy, second-ranked Luke Donald and Justin Rose (fourth), along with former Kapalua winners Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia.

American veteran Steve Stricker, who clinched his 12th PGA Tour victory by three shots at Kapalua last year, is back to defend his title.

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)

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