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Mercedes starts off another PGA season

    KAPALUA, Hawaii — The start of another PGA Tour season looks like any other.
    Only the winners from the previous year are allowed to tee off in the Mercedes-Benz Championship. The view from the first tee on the Plantation Course at Kapalua is a 520-yard stretch of emerald terrain broken by the blue of the Pacific Ocean, with the occasional splash of a humpback whale in the distance.
    And Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson stayed home again.
    But even with so much familiarity, this is the year of the unknown on the PGA Tour.
    K.J. Choi is to hit the opening tee shot today, officially launching what the PGA Tour has dubbed a ‘‘new era in golf.’’ It is built around the FedExCup, a season-long points race that will pause in August to reset the standings, end with a flourish of four big tournaments and award $10 million to the winner.
    ‘‘It has more of a fresh feel because it’s just different,’’ Jim Furyk said. ‘‘I think all of us are excited. All of us are apprehensive. All of us are scratching our heads in a few spots trying to figure out how it’s all going to work. It’s definitely new.’’
    Tour officials have spent the last year using power-point presentations and slide shows to explain how the FedExCup works. Furyk was given 2 minutes to offer his version of the new format and broke it down into three areas — a reorganized, shorter schedule; a way to market golf in a different light, and more excitement at the end of the year.
    One thing hasn’t changed.
    ‘‘Whether you’re looking at the money list or the points list, what it really boils down to is you need to play well,’’ Furyk said.
    The season starts at Kapalua for the ninth straight year, a course built on a mountain that offers breathtaking scenery, generous fairways and free money at the end of the week. With only 34 players, there is no cut.
    As for the ‘‘new era in golf,’’ that might take time to sink in. Any changes probably won’t be felt until the summer, when the tour gets closer to its playoff portion of the schedule.
    The top 144 players on the points list on Aug. 20 (one week after the PGA Championship) will reach the playoffs, which start in New York. The field will be reduced to 120 players outside Boston, to 70 players for the tournament in Chicago, with the top 30 advancing to the Tour Championship in Atlanta. The player with the most points gets $10 million.
    Because the points are reset before the playoffs, it’s impossible for a player to clinch the cup before September. And all that is eight months away, which is why there isn’t a sense of urgency at laid-back Kapalua.
    ‘‘I think everything will be pretty much normal through the year,’’ Stuart Appleby said. ‘‘There will be some discussion, but I think the real crux of where the Cup is going to come is the last five weeks. Otherwise, it’s just a horse race. Get out of the gates, get our position and get going. We have to play hard.’’
    Appleby has had no trouble getting out of the gates at Kapalua.
    He is the three-time defending champion of the Mercedes-Benz Championship, and will try this week to tie a PGA Tour record by winning the same event four straight times. Woods was the last player to do that at the Bay Hill Invitational (2000-2003).
    Appleby won in 2004 by building a six-shot lead and holding off a furious charge from Vijay Singh for a one-shot victory. A year later, he let Singh, Ernie Els and a host of others make mistakes on the back nine for another one-shot victory. And last year, he birdied the last hole twice, the second time in a playoff, to beat Singh again.
    Appleby has taken 825 shots on the Plantation course the last three years. Singh has taken 829 shots. Those four shots are the difference between one guy driving off with three new sports cars and the other guy taking a shuttle.
    Except for playing in Australia during the offseason and not having as much rust as some other players, Appleby can’t figure out why he has won nearly half his PGA Tour victories on this island.
    ‘‘There’s nothing typical about this golf course that says I should do well,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s hilly — I didn’t grow up on hilly golf courses. Windy, yes, I’m used to wind. Bermuda (grass), I never grew up on that. I just feel comfortable here. I can play well here, and usually I’m playing well when I come here.’’
    Singh is back for another try at the tournament that has brought nothing but frustration. The 43-year-old Fijian has seven consecutive finishes in the top 10, his worst showing a tie for eighth in 2000.
    Appleby will have plenty of challengers from the half-dozen Australians in the field, many of whom have been playing into December. U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy was runner-up to Woods in the Target World Challenge, John Senden captured the Australian Open and Adam Scott won the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake.
    Woods, who won at Kapalua in 2000, is skipping the tournament for the second straight year. He was on a skiing vacation with his family and said he didn’t have the time he wanted to prepare for this tournament, putting on hold his streak of six straight PGA Tour wins.
    Mickelson hasn’t played the Mercedes-Benz since 2001.
    The FedExCup will start without them, although no one in the field is terribly concerned. That leaves two fewer players to beat, and it shows that the FedExCup is about eight months, not one week.
    ‘‘It’s like Ryder Cup points,’’ Davis Love III said. ‘‘It’s in the back of your mind.’’

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