When tee shots were pushed wide at the par-5 ninth and pulled at the par-4 13th and led to squandered shots and a looser grip on his lead at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, you could almost hear the critics moaning about Dustin Johnson’s decision to hit driver.
Not Butch Harmon. He loves the fact that his 28-year-old student hits driver nearly everywhere. “Best club in his bag,” Harmon said Tuesday afternoon, right after Johnson recovered from his stumbles to win the season-opener at the Plantation Course at the Kapalua Resort on Maui in Hawaii.
But that’s not to say that Harmon didn’t promptly text Johnson and do his teacher thing.
“When he hits driver, he’s got to rip it,” Harmon said. “That’s what I said to him, ‘Let it fly. That’s when you play your best.’ “
Teacher knows best, too.
“He’s right. The bad drives at 9 and 13? I get in trouble when I just try to steer it out there. I can hit ‘chip’ shots with other clubs, but not the driver,” Johnson said.
But here’s the glory of Johnson, who has now won at least one tournament in each of his six years on Tour: He bounces back brilliantly. The bogey at the ninth was followed by solid pars at 10 and 11, then a birdie at 12 to seemingly get him back into control. And when he doubled 13? What came next was a thunderous drive just shy of the 14th green and a deft pitch and run that landed at the bottom of the cup for eagle.
For all intents and purposes, it was game over. But how is that possible, given that he had hit poor drives and made dubious decisions on two of the previous five holes?
“He has a tremendous ability, just like Tiger Woods, that the last shot never happened,” Harmon said. “He lets it go. That was always a strength of Woods’. You can’t teach that.”
Harmon constantly hears the critics spew on and on about how talented Johnson is, but how he doesn’t make good decisions on the golf course. Such talk is nonsense, he said.
“He has the most confidence in the driver and he hits it fine, but he’s got to rip it,” Harmon said. “I would never take that club away from him.”
Harmon said he hasn’t worked with Johnson a lot in recent weeks, but they have talked and texted a lot. “He has a great game plan (for 2013),” Harmon said. “I think he’s going to win a lot.”
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LEFTY IN THE WINGS: Thrilled to have watched Johnson win right out of the gates, Harmon is equally excited about his small, but talented stable of players.
“I can tell you the left-hander is chomping at the bit,” Harmon said, and that can only mean one man. Phil Mickelson.
Now 42, Mickelson will make his season debut next week at the Humana Challenge, and Harmon will be down in Palm Springs to fine-tune some things.
In addition to Mickelson, Johnson, Nick Watney and Gary Woodland, Harmon has started working full-time with Jimmy Walker, who is coming off a year in which he finished 48th on the money list.
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SIDE GAMES: Asked when he’ll tee it up with Mickelson in the same tournament, Johnson said it would be the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Just mentioning Mickelson got a smile from Johnson, as well as a twinkle in his eyes, because, oh, how those boys love their little practice-round games.
Johnson said he can’t wait, “because last year I was 9-0 against him.”
Something tells us that Mickelson might have a different score.
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REST IS NOT IN HIS PLANS: Scott Stallings finished T-13 at the Hyundai, and he’s right back at it this week at the Sony Open in Honolulu. And next week at the Humana? He’ll be there, too.
“The man loves his job,” said Frank Williams, the veteran caddie who has come aboard to carry Stallings’ bag.
Yes, he does, but in addition to that passion, Stallings has another reason to chase after it for the next few weeks: His wife, Jennifer, is expecting the couple’s first child in mid-February, so best get in a lot of action now.
The couple not only knows they are expecting a boy but also have the name picked out.
“I told him he could name him anything he wants,” Jennifer said, “because I’m picking out the middle name, and that’s what we’re calling him.”
So Stallings chose the first name of Bradley – named after his swing coach, Brad Rose, in his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. And Jennifer’s middle name, by which the boy will be called?
“I just like it,” Jennifer said.
The father-to-be said he was OK with Finn, too.
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SECOND OPINION: As havoc reigned during the first three days of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, most players were in agreement that conditions were like nothing they had ever seen.
Not everyone thought play should have been called, however.
Johnson Wagner wanted to go on.
“I doesn’t bother me that the ball’s rolling around,” he said Sunday when for the second time in two days, a few hours of play was scrapped because of high wind at the Plantation Course.
“I know the rules officials want us to play a competitive and equitable tournament, and it’s not really that equitable out there,” Johnson said. “If it was a normal event, I’d agree with them, but being a 30-man field, I feel like everyone’s playing in the same conditions, so be it. It’s not a normal event; let’s go play.”
Matt Kuchar and a few others understood that line of thinking, but in the end, they supported the decision to suspend play twice.
“The tough thing is,” Kuchar said, “is that it’s official (money and FedEx Cup points), and somebody’s going to get a bad break. When it’s official, you just hope it’s as fair as possible.”
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ENTER THE ROOKIES: If it’s Honolulu, it must be rookie time. And indeed, there is a healthy parade of them teeing it up in this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii.
Now the list of 29 rookies is a bit misleading, since it’s hard to consider Ross Fisher, Nicolas Colsaerts, Peter Hanson and Martin Kaymer – European Tour veterans who have combined to play in 140 PGA Tour events – as rookies. David Lynn, 39, is another longtime European who doesn’t feel like a rookie. But that still leaves a lengthy list of first-year players, 23 of whom are competing here at Waialae CC.
Of those 23, five have never played in a PGA Tour event: Donald Constable, Henrik Norlander, Robert Streb, David Lingmerth and Scott Gardiner.
Who knows who’ll break from the pack, but here’s one good one to keep an eye on: Luke List, who’ll celebrate his 28th birthday Monday. A onetime standout at Vanderbilt, List played the last three years on the Web.com Tour, finishing fourth on the money list in 2012.
His former Vanderbilt teammate, Jon Curran, played on the same high school team as Keegan Bradley, and that has opened a few doors for List. In fact, Bradley rambled down to List’s hotel room Tuesday night in Honolulu “and started talking some trash, setting up practice rounds,” List said, “and then he had Phil Mickelson text me.”
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HE’LL FIT RIGHT IN: With so little golf being played over in Maui, what with massive winds, it’s not like other sporting news wasn’t uncovered. Indeed, a certain volunteer offered some positive baseball news – at least if you’re a Red Sox fan.
It seems that Shane Victorino will fit in nicely in Boston, given his Irish roots.
Who says? His father, Michael Victorino, who once again worked as a volunteer at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
Victorino? Irish? Who knew?
The proud father, who was born on the Big Island but has lived on Maui since 1973, said his son, born in 1980, is parts “Portuguese, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, some English and some Irish.”
With a wide smile, Michael Victorino added, “we call that Cosmopolitan here on the island.”
A local councilman from Wailuku in central Maui, Michael Victorino said his son was looking forward to playing in Boston. “He played in Philadelphia, so he knows what to expect from the fans in Boston,” said the father. “I think he’ll do fine.”
As for the wild wind that canceled play each of the first three days at the Plantation Course, no one was more qualified than Michael Victorino than to put things in perspective. He was working his 27th tournament at the Kapalua Resort, going back to those years (1982-97) when they had an unofficial end-of-the-year event here.
“Never seen anything like it. Never,” he said.