By Mark Lamport-Stokes
KAPALUA, Hawaii (Reuters) - For almost two decades, the PGA Tour's opening event of the year has been held on the picturesque Hawaiian island of Maui with a winners-only field, an elite aspect tournament director Nancy Cross wants to retain.
The absence in recent seasons of top drawcards such as Tiger Woods and reigning world number one Rory McIlroy has led to dwindling spectator attendance and calls for a change to the qualification process but Cross is happy with the status quo.
"We've done really well this year," Cross told Reuters about the $5.7 million event, which was won on Monday by Patrick Reed in a playoff with fellow American Jimmy Walker.
"We sold out our pro-am (competition) and all our other sales have been very good. Our ticket sales were 35 percent ahead of what they were last year heading into the event.
"The event itself is in a good position. Hyundai has really liked the Tournament of Champions format and hasn't wished to change that format."
First held in 1953 at Desert Inn Country Club in Las Vegas, the Tournament of Champions has been staged for the past 17 years at the Kapalua Resort where an elite field of winners from the previous season assembles.
However, former world number one Woods has not competed on Maui since 2005 while McIlroy, his successor as the game's top drawcard and a double major winner last year, has never teed it up at the venue.
Last week's event featured just 34 players and, of those who had qualified, McIlroy, world number three Adam Scott of Australia and sixth-ranked Englishman Justin Rose were absent.
McIlroy and Rose are competing this week at the European Tour's Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, an event which typically attracts a strong entry and clearly affects who might be available to play in Hawaii.
Since Woods beat Ernie Els in a playoff for the 2000 title in front of huge galleries at Kapalua, spectator attendance has steadily dropped.
STRENGTHENING THE FIELD
To strengthen the Kapalua field, some have suggested a two-year exemption for PGA Tour winners from the previous season while others have proposed that all former champions should receive invitations.
"There's been a lot of discussion on the format and what the sponsor wants is paramount," Cross said of Hyundai, which has yet to renew its sponsorship for 2016. "I'm happy with the overall health of the Tournament of Champions but other factors are at work here and I'm not always the decision maker.
"The strength of the field at Kapalua definitely impacts us and it has for several years. Rory has never come out to the event but that's just the way it goes.
"I don't even know if we were at another time whether that would change things. Hawaii is a long way for the players to travel, our tournament is held around the end-of-year holidays and there is also the impact of that European Tour event."
While the players have always loved coming to Kapalua, where they and their families are pampered more than at any other PGA Tour event, many reacted favorably to the suggestion of a larger field for the tournament.
"Maybe it's a good thing if the field was a bit bigger," South African Tim Clark told Reuters. "There were only 34 guys here this year and they could stretch it to a 65- or 70-man field."
American Hunter Mahan agreed, telling Reuters: "I would totally understand why they would make it bigger. Anything that helps the event and the sponsors feel like they are getting more out of the players and a better tournament, I'm all for that.
"But I appreciate the fact that you have to win to be here and any increase in field size would depend on qualifications."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)