HONOLULU – With the official colors of the PGA Tour in full bloom – blue sky, green grass – the first round of the Sony Open extended optimum scoring conditions Thursday. No surprise, given the full field that is gathered here, that plenty of quality players took advantage, too.
The leaderboard was familiar in some ways, with 2010 Sony winner Ryan Palmer making an appearance after a 65. Coming off back issues, Retief Goosen posted a 66 and tied with Harris English and John Daly.
The leaderboard also had its surprises with Sang Moon Bae’s 63, Chris Kirk’s 64 and Hideto Tanihara’s 66.
Here are 5 Things to Know from a gorgeous day in Hawaii:
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1. SEA OF RED: If the standard-bearer walking with the 7:50 a.m. group off the first tee got a sore elbow from reaching up to change the numbers, he can blame Sang-Moon Bae and Chris Kirk.
All they did was blitz Waialae CC with sub-par scores on 13 of the 18 holes – 12 birdies and an eagle. The pair had it going so well that had they been a team, they would have fired a 14-under 56.
For Bae, there never was going to be any excuse about unfamiliarity with Waialae. “I came here Dec. 20. I had a lot of practice rounds, so it was a comfortable round,” said Bae, who broke through for his first win last May at the HP Byron Nelson Championship. Unfortunately for the 27-year-old from South Korea, Bae struggled the rest of the season.
No such problems Thursday. Not for Bae, who went out in 5-under 30 and finished at 7-under 63. And not for Kirk, who torched the back in 29.
The Bae-Kirk duo was so impressive, they overshadowed the third member of the group – Rory Sabbatini (73) – who as a third member of that hypothetical team would hardly have helped. In fact, Sabbatini made one birdie, at the par-3 seventh, that would have helped in that scenario. With Sabbatini factored in, the three-man best-ball would have improved only a shot to 55.
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2. SAVES HIS OWN GAME: If he were the starting pitcher in a baseball game, Kirk might have been pulled after six holes. He had hit three greens, had lodged himself in the trees to right of the sixth fairway, and was 2 over on a day when sub-par scores were prevalent.
Funny thing is, “I wasn’t playing that bad,” said Kirk, who was 2 over through seven holes to Bae’s 4 under.
Had he talked the manager into keeping him in the game, Kirk quickly rewarded the decision. After making par at the par-3 seventh, Kirk played his next 11 holes in a sizzling 8 under to roar up the leaderboard. At 6-under 64, he trails only Bae.
Kirk had chalked up last week’s roller-coaster at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions to inactivity. “I was definitely rusty,” he said. “I had moments of brilliance, but a lot of pretty bad golf.”
Finishing T-16 in a field of 30 at Kapalua, Kirk arrived Tuesday at Waialae and worked for hours with his instructor, Guy Hamilton. The dividends paid off with a sterling display of ball-striking over his final 11 holes. Kirk birdied from 1 foot at the par-3 eighth, made a 12-footer at the par-5 ninth, then knocked it to a foot at the par-3 11th and 3 feet at the par-4 12th.
He kept the roll going with birdies at 15 and 16; then at 18, Kirk hit a brilliant fairway bunker shot from 249 yards to 14 feet and made the putt for eagle to put himself into the thick of things.
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3. LOOK WHO’S HERE: With hair whiter than the caps to waves crashing to the shore at Waikiki Beach, the unmistakable presence of John Daly stormed into view, thanks to birdies on three of his last seven holes.
With a 4-under 66, his best score at Waialae since Round 1 in 2001, Daly sat just three off the lead in his first PGA Tour event since last summer’s Greenbrier Classic. Daly had withdrawn after opening with a 75 and soon after underwent surgery on his right elbow to repair damage he said was caused years earlier while trying to stop his swing at the Honda Classic.
“The arm feels good. The greatest thing is, I can hit three-quarter shots again,” said Daly. “I haven’t done that in six years. That was my bread and butter; that was my game.”
Hitting nine fairways, 15 greens, and needing just 29 putts? “That’s not my game,” said Daly with a laugh, though it’s exactly what he tossed onto the stat sheet to get onto the first page of the leaderboard. Pretty good for a guy who said he’s been hanging around Arkansas for about three weeks with temperatures barely over 30 degrees.
“I need a little more practice. I’m rusty,” said Daly, who is playing the first of five straight tournaments. He’ll go to the Humana next week, then he’ll play in Qatar and Dubai before returning for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
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4. GETTING HARD TO DEFEND: Russell Henley made his first full trip around Waialae on Thursday. The defending champion made a gallant effort in the Wednesday Pro-Am, but food poisoning stopped him in his tracks on the 11th hole.
Two trips to the hospital for IV fluids and medicine and Henley made his 12:20 p.m. HST tee time, but his 3-over 73 didn’t come close to the 63 he fired off in last year’s final round.
“I’m not operating at 100 percent,” Henley said of his performance that included two double bogeys on the 10th and 11th holes. “I’m feeling a lot better than yesterday, but I made two bad swings, two really bad holes. Other than that, I played a pretty decent round; a couple putts didn’t fall. I think I’ll be feeling good tomorrow and hopefully will play well.”
Tied for 115th, Henley is four shots shy of making the cut and will have to put together something in the range of 4 under or better to make it back on the weekend.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: Charles Howell shot 71, halting a stretch of eight consecutive sub-par rounds at Waialae that covered the 2012 and ’13 tournaments. Howell was 28 under for those eight rounds. . . . Robert Streb is the only alternate to get into the Sony field; while his even-par 70 didn’t light it up, he is right on the cut line going into Friday’s second round. . . . Derek Ernst struggled at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, shooting 79-76-76-70. Before that final round, Ernst put the ball the ball back in his stance; it worked Monday and worked again Thursday with a 2-under 68. . . . In shooting a 4-under 66, Tanihara made three putts over 20 feet on the 4th, 7th and 14th holes; all led to birdies. . . . Sixty-four players finished under par.