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2009 PGA primer

No need but plenty of desire

John Huston could be home right now. He could be tinkering around his house at Innisbrook, tending to Clearwater Executive golf course, which he owns, or getting in a quick 18 on the Island Course.

At 47, with seven career PGA Tour victories and more than $14 million earned in a 21-year career, Huston doesn't have to be chasing his golf ball across the country anymore.

He doesn't have to, but he wants to.

As a past champion and veteran member, he qualified for some tournaments. But he played in no more than 18 the past two years, half of what he normally played.

"I kind of turned it down a little bit and then I found out it's kind of boring,'' Huston said. "I wanted to play more of a full schedule.''

In order to be fully exempt , Huston had to go back to qualifying school. He had to start at the second stage, and after a top-25 finish he was off to the final stage in La Quinta, Calif. Huston shot an opening 74 before finishing the next five rounds in the 60s to tie for fourth.

He plans on playing in at least 25 tournaments this season.

"It's kind of a grind and you don't really have the same hunger you had when you were 23,'' Huston said of qualifying school. "It's a lot bigger deal now than what it used to be. … Nobody paid much attention other than the people who were involved. Now it's a spectacle.''

Huston struggled in his opener, shooting 79 at the Sony Open in Hawaii last week then withdrawing with an arm injury. He is in the field this week at the Bob Hope Classic in La Quinta, Calif.

Before heading west, Huston said, "I want to get off to a good start. I need to build confidence from there. I'm not going to give myself specific goals. Certainly winning would be nice, but I just want to compete in the early part of the season.''

While Champions Tour eligibility is right around the corner, Huston still believes he can compete with the young guns. And even if he hovers in the middle of the pack, it beats sitting around the house looking for something to do.

"It's not back to where it was,'' Huston said. "I did start putting better. I felt that once I started putting better I could make pretty good money doing it, so why not? (Winning) is not as likely as it used to be. But if everything went well for a whole week certainly it's a possibility. I had a chance to win at the end of last year at Palm Coast (Ginn sur Mer Classic). It's definitely there.

"I'm not where I was compared to everybody else but I'm still middle of the pack.''

Five players to watch

1. Anthony Kim: A two-time winner last year, Kim was also a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He has a second-place finish in Hawaii, so expect Kim, 23, to be near the top of leaderboard throughout the season.

2. Boo Weekley: Sure, he's a country boy (Milton ) with an "aw shucks'' attitude, but Boo (Thomas Brent) can play. He didn't make the Ryder Cup team by accident. Weekley, 35, played in 24 tournaments last season and made 19 cuts, so the crowd favorite tends to stick around for the weekend.

3. Camillo Villegas: The Florida Gator came on at the end of 2008, winning consecutive FedEx Cup playoff tournaments in September. Villegas, 26, had seven top-10 finishes and earned over $4 million.

4. Ryuji Imada: Tampa resident won his first PGA Tour tournament last season, and the first is always the most difficult. Imada, 32, now seems comfortable on tour, so expect him to live up to the hype when he first hit the tour as a heralded junior player.

5. Tiger Woods: No brainer. Always watch Tiger Woods. But this year is different. How will Woods, 33, come back from knee surgery? When will he come back? How many tournaments will he play? Four majors shy of Jack Nicklaus' 18, can he tie the Golden Bear this year?

What's new

1. Schedule: The Ginn sur Mer Classic in Palm Coast is gone, and a three-tournament Texas Swing was added in May. The Florida Swing was retooled, with the bay area's Transitions Championship (March 16-22) a week later than last season. Despite the sagging economy, PGA Tour players will actually get a raise . The total purse is $222.9 million, up from $214.4 million in 2008.

2. FedEx Cup playoffs change: Vijay Singh won the first two playoff tournaments last season and merely had to show up for the final two in order to win the playoff and collect its $5 million bonus. This year, the points reset will take place after the BMW Championship, the third of four playoff tournaments. That means points earned during the regular season will carry through the first three playoff tournaments. Points will quintuple at the first three playoff events, and the hope is that all 30 players in the final field will have a theoretical shot at the FedEx Cup title.

3. European tour gets stronger: Some of the world's top players, including Sergio Garcia, left, and Phil Mickelson, right, have vowed to spend more time on the European PGA Tour, mainly because of the race to Dubai. The top 60 on the European money list get to play in the Dubai World Championship for its $10 million purse.

Five rookies to watch

1. Colt Knost: He won the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Amateur Public Links and played on America's Walker Cup winning team in 2007. Then he won twice on the Nationwide Tour and finished sixth on the money list in 2008. At 23, he could have a long career on the PGA Tour.

2. Derek Fathauer: The Stuart native finished tied for second at Q-school. The former Louisville golfer qualified for the U.S. Open last year and made the cut. Now that Fathauer, 23, has full-time status on tour, he could stay there a while.

3. Jeff Klauk: Former Florida Southern golfer spent four years on the Nationwide Tour before breaking out in 2008 with $407,418 to finish third on the money list. Klauk, 31, is a mini-tour veteran who may have the maturity to survive on the big tour.

4. James Nitties: The 26-year-old Australian was on the Golf Channel's Big Break reality show and finished second at PGA Qualifying school. He has played on the European, Australasia and Nationwide tours.

5. Matt Bettencourt: Top player on the Nationwide Tour in 2008 with two wins, six top 10s and $447,863 earned. Bettencourt, 33, won the season-ending Nationwide Tour Championship.

2009 PGA primer 01/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 6:23pm]
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