KAPALUA, Hawaii – And on the fourth day, finally, they played. Finally. Rickie Fowler hit the first tee shot yet one more time – Opening Round, Take 3 – and this time it actually counted. For those who waited patiently to see the PGA Tour season officially cut the ribbon out here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the skies turned bluer, the winds grew tamer, and lots of terrific golf was played.
Dustin Johnson (69-66) is the man everyone will try to chase down in Tuesday’s 18-hole sprint to the finish, and if he plays anything like he did on Monday, well, good luck with that. Tee to green, Johnson put on a clinic, hitting 33 of 36 greens in regulation. When asked what he did well for two rounds, Johnson economically – and quite accurately – provided a single-word answer: Everything.
“Drove it well, chipped it well, hit my irons good,” he said. “To shoot the score I did, you’ve got to do everything well.”
Johnson, 28, who has captured the previous two PGA Tour events that were shortened to 54 holes (2009 Pebble Beach AT&T, 2011 Barclays) and has won at least one event in each of the last five seasons (only Phil Mickelson has a longer streak of winning in consecutive seasons, with 9), delivered a strong finishing kick to what had been a long, long day amid the whipping winds at Kapalua. His last seven holes featured four birdies and one closing eagle, the latter set up with an incredible 6-iron approach from 228 yards that came to rest 5 feet left of the flagstick on the par-5 18th.
“Dustin played unbelievable golf,” said Bubba Watson, who was alongside Johnson for all 36 holes. Watson played pretty well himself, hitting 34 greens and shooting 70-69 on the par-73 Plantation Course. He’ll begin Tuesday’s final round four shots back.
“I’ve got to go out and put up some great numbers tomorrow morning, but I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Watson said. “If he (Johnson) goes out and plays like he did today, he’s going to be really tough to catch. I guess we’ll need to shoot one of those Tommy ‘Two Gloves’ 60s.”
Tournament officials were applauded for a course setup that helped get 30 guys around 36 holes on one of the most undulating and difficult walking courses on Tour. Tees were moved up, greens were slowed down (to about 8.5 or so on the Stimp) and holes were cut into pretty benign locations, especially on a few of the holes on the back nine that sit most exposed to Kapalua’s high winds.
If the tournament gets through 54 holes Tuesday, as expected it will, it will be deemed official, with earnings official, full FedEx Cup points awarded and the winner earning a return trip to the TOC.
Nobody had a tougher day physically than Steve Stricker, the defending champion and only fortysomething in the field. Stricker, who turns 46 next month and will cut back his schedule in 2013, has been experiencing a mysterious nerve problem since late last season, and Monday he competed in a great deal of pain. Whenever he tried to get to his left side while swinging, he’d be met with a dull pain shooting down his left leg. He toughed it out, though, shooting 71-67 to give himself a chance heading into the final round. He’s three shots back.
“It was uncomfortable to play, but it never really got any worse than when it really started,” said Stricker, who told a Tour official before the round that he might not even be able to start. At some junctures in his round, he laid on the ground and stretched, and at the end of the day, he limped to the locker room. “It felt as crappy on the first hole as the last hole.”
The highlight of Stricker’s second round came at the 18th hole, his ninth, where he pitched in from 67 yards for eagle.
“It was a long day,” he said, “but a good day. I hung in there.”
FedEx Cup champion Brandt Snedeker, who was paired with Stricker, approached him on the final hole and joked, “How am I going to beat you if you’ve got two good legs? I can’t beat you with only one.”
As Stricker tried to manage his pain by bunting the ball around the Plantation, slowing his tempo and keeping shots in front of him, Johnson and Watson, two of his Ryder Cup teammates, were on the other side of the golf course swing with boundless ferociousness and staging a long-ball display. Between them, the pair made 21 birdies and an eagle.
Johnson “nearly fell over” hitting driver off the 420-yard 12th, where his tee shot finished about 1 foot short of the green, setting up an easy two-putt birdie. A gust of wind pushed Watson’s answer to that drive into a greenside bunker, or he’d have done the same.
It was 36 holes of “whatever you can do, I can at least try to do better.” And it was a blast to watch.
“Bobby (Brown, Johnson’s caddie) and I kept telling each other that we had the best seats in the house, I promise you,” said Ted Scott, Watson’s caddie. “To see the shots that those two hit and try and accomplish, it’s a lot of fun. They’re both freaks, and both are creative with their shots.
“They might hit an 8-iron from 110 yards or a lob wedge from 150. It seems like they see things a lot the same on this course. It’s a course that makes you be creative.”
Stricker realizes that it’s not going to be very easy to run down Johnson, especially if Johnson plays anything like he did for two rounds Monday. The Tour’s 54-hole king may be on the verge of adding yet another crown.
“I wish I was feeling 100 percent,” Stricker said. “But we never know, either. . . . I’ve been in that position where he’s at now. It’s a tough spot. We’ve got really nothing to lose tomorrow, and it makes it a little bit easier for us, but tougher on him.”