HONOLULU – The small crowd far down the eighth fairway could see John Daly, just not where his golf ball was headed.
Daly is hard to miss these days, even from more than 300 yards away – not because he has lost 100 pounds, rather the colorful prints he wears, some that look like a gum ball machine.
On this day at the Sony Open, the gallery was curious to see whether players would go at the green more than 450 yards away with a stiff wind at their backs. Daly’s tee shot sailed over the trees and just through the fairway. Next was Bubba Watson, even longer off the tee, and his drive stopped in the short grass about 70 yards short of the green.
So much for that notion of playing it safe this year.
While one hole – especially those two players – is not the best sampling of strategy on the PGA Tour, two weeks into the new year did little to support the theory that players will give up distance for accuracy because of V-shaped grooves now required in irons.
What followed was worth noting.
Daly is using 20-year-old Ping wedges that still have square grooves (legal through a loophole), and he couldn’t figure out how to play toward the pin. He chose a low trajectory and wound up 40 feet short. Watson played a higher trajectory and still came up 25 feet short.
Clearly, there will be some adjustments to make this year.
In an effort to put a greater premium on accuracy, golf’s governing bodies served up the most significant rollback in technology by banning box-shaped grooves that generate greater spin.
Will that make golf harder?
Geoff Ogilvy defended his title at Kapalua with a 22-under 280, two strokes higher than last year, and that can be attributed to the strong Kona wind that makes the course slightly tougher.
Ryan Palmer won the Sony Open on Sunday at 15-under 265, the same winning score Zach Johnson had last year.
Whether scores will suffer will not be noticeable until more tournaments are played on different grasses in a variety of conditions. The new grooves at least appear to make the game different.
The best example came at the decisive par-5 18th hole in the final round at Waialae, when Palmer and Robert Allenby were tied for the lead, both in the rough right of the fairway.
Palmer had 226 yards to the hole for his second shot, thought about a 6-iron, then changed to a 5 because the ball was sitting up in the grass and he didn’t think it would jump off the club. He guessed wrong, and the ball came up 50 feet short.
“It obviously didn’t jump out like I thought it would,” Palmer said. “It caught a little bit high on the club face.”
Next up was Allenby, who was in about the same spot the day before when he hit a 4-iron. This time, he opted for a 5 from 218 yards and it came out hot, running through the back of the green and against a TV tower. With a nasty lie, he opted to pop up a wedge and did well to leave himself a 10-foot putt up the hill, which he missed and lost by one shot.
“I had the same yardage as yesterday, and I hit one club less and it went further,” Allenby said. “And that’s the beauty of the grooves today. It has changed the game of golf, which I think is for the better. I think it’s great, because now we have to all of a sudden manufacture our way around the golf course.
“Before, it would have come out soft, and we know that,” he said. “Today, you don’t know where it’s going to go.”
It has hurt some players.
Pat Perez was amazed at some of the fliers he got out of the rough, hitting one 7-iron from 210 yards that was “all grooves.” He prepared for those shots. What stumped him was chipping around the green with new grooves in his wedges.
“I can’t chip,” he said, which was evident on the 13th hole Saturday when he came up 6 feet short on a standard chip and took bogey. “I’ve tried them all – a bump, a flop. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
Steve Stricker believes it already has cost him a few shots, including one at Kapalua on the ninth hole when he was expecting the ball to check up after one bounce, and instead it released.
On the 10th hole Thursday at Waialae, what was supposed to be a low trajectory with a sand wedge climbed into the blue sky.
“It climbed right up the face, went up and went down,” said Stricker, who still managed to make birdie because he can still putt. “I’ve tried different techniques. It’s not the normal trajectory I’m used to seeing. I look down on the club face and I’ve got a grass stain in the middle. It really is a guessing game now.”
New grooves aren’t necessarily bad.
Vijay Singh had a shot from the left rough on the 16th hole in which he ordinarily might have been blocked by a tree. With more shallow grooves, he was able to get the ball higher and over the tree with a wedge.
That’s the kind of situation to which Ogilvy was referring at Kapalua when he said, “We lost a bit, but we gained somewhere else.”
The next lab test comes this week at the Bob Hope Classic, which typically doesn’t feature much rough. Then it’s onto Torrey Pines, Riviera and Pebble Beach, with grass that is longer, thinner and typically more damp.
More learning awaits.
“The skill is to try to land it where you need to,” Allenby said. “But there is a lot more luck involved now.”