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Golf Tidbits: Plenty up for grabs as 2010 kicks off

Kevin Currie, Golf Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - We know that Tiger Woods is in hiding and won't return to the PGA Tour in the near future. As the PGA Tour kicks off its 2010 campaign, he will not be the only one missing in action.

Only nine of the top-20 players in the world are scheduled to play this week or next. Of the 11 not playing these two weeks, seven are ranked in the top nine in the world.

What does that mean for the tour? Obviously two titles are there for the taking, but more importantly are the world ranking points and Ryder Cup points to be had. The Ryder Cup will take place the first three days of October, and spots on the U.S. and European teams are up for grabs.

Players that are vying for a place on the United States team collected points in 2009 at the four major championships. This year, players will earn one point per $1,000 earned with points doubled at the four major championships.

The Americans hoping to collect some early points include Steve Stricker, Kenny Perry, Sean O'Hair and British Open champion Stewart Cink. All four are in the field this week for the season-opening, winners-only SBS Championship, which has a 28-player field with Woods, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson skipping the event.

Also absent is world No. 5 Jim Furyk, who hasn't won since 2007 and thus is ineligible for the second straight year. He was also ineligible in 2005, but has posted six top-10s, including a win in 2001, in his nine last appearances.

With Woods on the sidelines, who will steal the headlines in the early going? Sergio Garcia? He is still having issues with his wrist, which he first injured in November at the Dubai World Championship, and is scheduled to play in two weeks in Abu Dhabi, but we'll mark that down in pencil, not ink. Count him out.

Three highly ranked European Tour players - Lee Westwood, Stenson and Rory McIlory? They will be among those starting 2010 at that Abu Dhabi event. Phil Mickelson is slated to kick off his season in two weeks in San Diego. You can count all of the above out for the next two weeks.

Brimming with confidence from the Presidents Cup and after posting a fourth- place finish in Kapalua last year, O'Hair should be one of the favorites this week. A victory on the Plantation Course would not guarantee a spot on the Ryder Cup team, but it would go a long way towards O'Hair playing his second straight International Team event.

Three other Americans are making their debut in this week's winners-only event -- Ryan Moore, Pat Perez and Bo Van Pelt. Of that group, Moore carries the most momentum from '09 as he posted three straight top-eight finishes to end last year.

However, the SBS Championship has eight straight non-American winners. That could change this week as 19 of the 28 players are American.

There are no rookies in the field this week, as no first-year players won on the PGA Tour next year. But, in the coming weeks, people will learn more about Australian Michael Sim and American Rickie Fowler.

Sim won three times on the Nationwide Tour last year and set the tour record for money earned in a single season. Fowler tried to earn his tour card with his play via sponsor exemptions late last year, but fell just short. He later secured his tour privileges via the PGA Tour Q School.

Another young American that could burst onto the scene is Billy Horschel. He was a three-time First Team All-American at Florida, was the 2007 SEC Player of the Year and played on the 2007 U.S. Walker Cup team. He first made headlines in 2006 at the U.S. Amateur when he fired an 11-under 60 the first day of stroke play. That score was a USGA record that stands to this day.

THE ROAD TO AUGUSTA

The Masters doesn't start until the second weekend of April, but there are already 91 players eligible to compete in the season's first major.

Players can also make the field by winning official PGA Tour events prior to The Masters.

The season's first major has several intriguing players already qualified. Michael Sim's three Nationwide Tour titles helped him move into the top 50 in the world at the end of last year, therefore giving him a spot in the field. He was the highest-ranked Nationwide Tour player ever.

Edoardo Molinari, the 2005 U.S. Amateur champion, matched Sim's feat across the pond. He won three times on the European Tour's Challenge Tour, while his brother Francesco posted nine top-10 finishes on the European Tour. They both finished inside the world top 50, and will be the first brothers to play at The Masters since the Ozaki brothers did so in 2000

Among the big names that haven't qualified yet for The Masters are Stephen Ames, K.J. Choi, Davis Love III, Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker.

MINI-TIDBITS

- If you want to see some great views and huge tee shots, watch this week's SBS Championship, especially when the players reach the monstrous 663-yard, par-five 18th. If the trade winds are blowing the right direction, 400-yard drives are the norm.

- As we start the 2010 season, 40 of the top-100 ranked players in the world are not PGA Tour members.

- The 2010 LPGA schedule has dwindled to 24 events. Of those 24, 11 are outside the United States.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Kevin Currie at kcurrie@sportsnetwork.com.

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