Kapalua
Kapalua is breathtaking, but there are plenty of other spectacular stops on Tour, too. Credit: Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports.

Visions of Kapalua flash into a PGA Tour player’s mind moments after his caddie unscrews flag from stick and the tournament victory celebration begins.

Most players, anyway.

Tiger and Phil are legends. They can do what they want. Justin Rose won the FedEx Cup last year, earning millions and the right to be selective with his 2019 schedule.

But for the rest of the mortals and stars, starting the year on Maui is a sweet reward for an excellent year highlighted by the ultimate accomplishment. Rest assured Troy Merritt or Ted Potter Jr., Kevin Tway or even Charles Howell III — and their respective caddies — will savor every minute of the Sentry Tournament of Champions this week.

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Starting the year with a business trip to Hawaii is a perk of Tour life. While most Americans are crashing from the holiday buzz and returning to the mundane routine of work or school, there are 34 player/caddie teams basking in the sunshine as they navigate the mountainous Plantation course.

From a physical perspective, the Plantation is no pushover. Caddies named it the most difficult course to walk on the PGA Tour in past polls. The 7,500 yards climbing and descending paired with gargantuan walks between a half-dozen or so holes produce throbbing calves and aching backs, but so goes the price of paradise and a guaranteed piece of the purse.

It’s a penance any looper would gladly pay.

I experienced many memorable moments during my days as a PGA Tour caddie, but in roughly 150 starts never rang the victory bell. However, I did enjoy many trips to the Sony Open on neighboring Oahu, which was a decent consolation prize. Since it’s the first full-field event each calendar year, I’ll start my list of favorite PGA Tour stops there.

Other than the lengthy flight from the east coast of the mainland, there was plenty to love about opening the tournament season at Waialae. Let’s start with 80-degree days and 70-degree nights. Unlike its Hawaiian counterpart, the Waialae Country Club is a flat, comfortable walk. The course, originally designed by Seth Raynor, provides the perfect place to warm up the legs and back. In the 80s, Tour caddie Alaskan Dave looped barefoot during the tournament.

Away from the course, I spent chunks of time at Duke’s, the legendary restaurant on the beach at Waikiki Beach. Buffet breakfast in the morning. Sunsets beyond description. Rare tuna and copious amounts of cocktails in the evening.

Over there I just wanted to be outside, morning or night.

Describing the rest of the West Coast Swing creates a quandary.

On one hand, California is great. It’s beautiful. The weather, when good, is perfect. The golf courses at Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach are among the best on the PGA Tour all season. On a clear day, gazing back toward La Jolla from the 15th green on the North Course at Torrey or looking out over Carmel Bay from the seventh tee at Pebble provides incomparable scenery. There are millions of photos as proof.

Pebble Beach
One of the millions of photos as proof that the seventh tee at Pebble provides incomparable scenery. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On the other hand, California is expensive. It’s crowded. The weather, when bad, is terrible. I sat in a hotel room in Los Angeles on a Monday and watched rain fall as hard as Earthly possible for 12 consecutive hours. Torrential downpours and uprooted trees washed out the entire tournament at Pebble Beach one year. The West Coast Swing also meant early morning wake-up calls and slow rounds.

Looking at the rest of the schedule from that era, New Orleans and Las Vegas were always my kind of towns. Late nights were the rule rather than the exception.

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Jazz Fest often coincided with the New Orleans stop, which was just fine with this music lover. Ambling through the French Quarter was always a fine way to waste a languid Louisiana afternoon, slurping down oysters and washing ‘em home with something chilly. The golf wasn’t bad either.

In those days, two of the courses in the Vegas rotation were located right on the Strip. There might have been a looper or six who proceeded directly from a hot streak on the blackjack table to a perch outside the Desert Inn clubhouse, bleary-eyed and ready to work.

One year I got fired in Vegas — and deserved it.

Harbour Town, the longtime host of the RBC Heritage, on Hilton Head Island, S.C. definitely ranks high on the list of favorites. Springtime in South Carolina can be wonderful. Warm breezes, a flat, straightforward course, girls in sundresses. It was all right there in the Low Country. Sharing a condo with two or three other loopers inside the Sea Pines gates made a relaxing week. Cups of she-crab soup and sips of cold beer at the Crazy Crab washed away the bogeys and the Quarterdeck turned rowdy after the sun went down.

Many of the other weeks melt into a blur.

Time has taken away some familiar dates on the schedule. For many years, the Western Open in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, was the Tour’s regular stop during Fourth of July week. We’d stay near the course in the same hotel each year and became friendly with the general manager, who would often join us for drinks in the bar. As day turned to night and fireworks started exploding over Lake Michigan, we’d grab a bottle or two and join her on the hotel roof to enjoy the scene.

There are worse ways to spend an evening.