For Johnson Wagner and Webb Simpson, spending this week amid Maui’s splendor is both an acknowledgment of their 2012 successes and the ideal way to begin a new PGA Tour season.
Charlotte residents Wagner and Simpson are among the 30 players teeing it up Friday in the first round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the spectacular Plantation Course at Kapalua, a winners-only event that opens the 2013 tour schedule.
Simpson earned his tee time in the gusty trade winds on Maui’s west coast with his career-defining U.S. Open victory last June. Wagner, meanwhile, assured himself a spot at Kapalua when he won the Sony Open in Hawaii last January, a title he will defend next week.
While some of the game’s biggest names – Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson among others – have opted out of their Kapalua invitations, Wagner and Simpson are eager to get started.
“I’m sharp,” Wagner said after a second tune-up trip to Florida before heading to Hawaii.
“I’m itching to go,” Simpson echoed.
This is the last time the Kapalua event will be the official starting point of a new PGA Tour season. In fact, it’s just the first of two season-opening events for the tour this calendar year as it will shift in the fall to a wraparound schedule going forward.
Once the FedEx Cup playoffs end in mid-September, the 2013-14 season will begin in October, ushering in what will amount to a 12-month season.
For the moment, it’s about Kapalua and knocking off whatever rust may have accumulated in the past couple of months.
In Wagner’s case, his immediate goal is to replicate his strong start from a year ago. He tied for ninth at Kapalua, won the next week and finished tied for second the following week in the Humana Challenge. Wagner’s year was made before the calendar reached February.
He had a pair of top-15 finishes in March in Florida but tailed off from there, missing the cut in all three major championships without earning another top-20 finish.
“My 2012 started so well I’m trying to do the same things I did last year,” said Wagner, a three-time winner on tour. “My bad parts all came after the Masters last year. I got caught up trying to get into the majors and trying to qualify for the Ryder Cup. I kind of forgot to just go out and play.”
Wagner’s strong start convinced him that he’s capable of playing against the best in the world for extended periods of time. His objective this year is to win multiple events. When Wagner has won in the past, he has not reset his goals for the season.
The next step, he said, is to improve his short game to save the lost shots that cost him last year.
“It’s pretty abysmal,” Wagner said. “It’s easy to see why I’m not more consistent. I make a lot of bogeys when I should make pars. I’ve been putting in the time and I’m seeing it pay off.”
For Simpson, winning the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club last June earned him the major champion distinction. It was his only victory of the year but it was enormous.
“What winning the Open meant more than anything was knowing I can win on the big stage,” Simpson said. “It did something for me inside more than it did externally. The satisfying thing is to go out there and do it.”
Simpson won twice in 2011 and finished second on the money list. He slipped to 17th on the money list last year but won the U.S. Open and played on the Ryder Cup team.
“Most people would think I didn’t get better but I feel like I did, though the results didn’t necessarily show it,” Simpson said.
“It was a tough month after the Open. I got a little away from working on my fundamentals but I got my focus back at the end of the year.”
Simpson plans to be busy early in the season, playing nine events through the Florida swing in March. He’s without regular caddie Paul Tesori in Kapalua, who is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Adam Hayes, Jonathan Byrd’s regular caddie, is on Simpson’s bag while Tesori and Byrd (wrist surgery) are recovering.
Virtually every week going forward, Simpson expects to be asked about the USGA ruling that will outlaw the use of anchored putting strokes beginning in 2016. A devotee of the belly putter, Simpson has said several times that he believes distance is a bigger problem than anchored putting.
At some point, however, Simpson intends to return to using a traditional putting stroke.
“I’m going to keep working on it and whenever (the standard-length putter) feels comfortable, I’ll bring it out,” said Simpson, who uses a standard-length putter in casual rounds at home.
KEY PGA TOUR DATES
April 11-14, Augusta National Golf Club
April 18-21, Harbour Town Golf Links
Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Wells Fargo Championship
Quail Hollow Club
June 13-16, Merion Golf Club
July 18-21, Muirfield
Aug. 8-11, Oak Hill Country Club
Aug. 15-18, Sedgefield Country Club