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Plantation Course in Hawaii provides epic beginning

KAPALUA, HAWAII - Like spring, the PGA Tour year comes in like a lion. Or perhaps, to a lion. The Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort here is the rugged, windswept, 7,411-yard site of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the first event on the 2013 calendar.

The tournament winners from 2012 converge on Maui's prime property, trying for a fast start to the season in the idyllic spot. Play begins Friday.

There is a bumper crop of five Canadians qualified for the tour this year, but with no wins last year they'll have to wait till the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu next week. This week's favourites will likely be FedEx Cup winner Brandt Snedeker, Jason Dufner (the breakout player of 2012), Zach Johnson or Englishman Ian Poulter, who dominated at the Ryder Cup at Medinah last year.

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Running through thick forest, groves, volcanic outcrops and rolling hills down to the Pacific Ocean, the Plantation's challenge lies in the steep elevation changes as players navigate the former pineapple plantation. From the upper holes on the front nine, the course tumbles hundreds of feet down to the rocky shoreline as players turn for home on the back nine.

All of it is made more treacherous when the afternoon trade winds sweep in off the Pacific. Players enticed to go flag-hunting find themselves lost in the volcanic walls and scrub that line the course.

"The course is crazier than I would have thought," U.S. pro Keegan Bradley said last year. "I knew it was going to be hilly and rolling, but this is a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be. It's a fun course to play, but you've got to try to get out there and learn these breaks."

Built in 1991 by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, the course makes club selection and shot shape become magnified by the natural elements in this Audubon-certified sanctuary.

Every drive can seem like a postcard shot to tour pros such as Bubba Watson, who averaged a booming 296.4 yards in the 2012 event won by Steve Stricker.

Many of the Plantation's holes are well known to viewers who have enviously watched the tournament on TV back in snowbound Canada. There is the combination of the ribboning, 532-yard fifth hole, defying approach shots with its green propped precariously on a narrow cliff, and then the sixth, a 398-yard par-four with its green tucked at the bottom of a steep hill, sending aggressive approach shots over the edge into a gully. Have your brakes checked for this one.

The 203-yard eighth is a hold-your-breath par-three across a canyon to a back-to-front sloping green backed by traps for those who use an extra club to ensure they carry the wilderness. Many a tour pro has seen his chance at winning disappear into the crevasse.

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The ninth, the top handicap hole, is a rolling 521-year challenge ending at a well-bunkered green at the front. Stricker hit a pin-seeking approach here last year for a tap-in birdie that gave him a three-shot lead he never surrendered. The par-four 17th requires nothing but carry on the second shot down to a wide green protected at front by a gorge into scrub. It was here that Jonathan Byrd's late run to overtake Stricker last year came up short after a costly bogey.

"You've got to have good touch around the greens, because with the wind and the slope and everything, conditions change pretty quick, so you have to be able to adapt," said Byrd, who did win the 2011 edition however.

And the cascading fairway of the 18th hole is famous for its duel in 2000 between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els. After matching shots down the back nine, the two superstars eagled the 663-yard par-five before Woods finally emerged as the winner in a playoff with a 35-foot downhill putt to win the tournament.

Non-tour players who've tested the Plantation have relived the great moments in tournament lore such as Els' heroic 31-under triumph in 2003. The Plantation favours the brave, and Els had the answers that weekend.

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