Third time is a charm for Fowler, Hyundai field

Rickie Fowler during the Hyundai Tournament of Champions

Rickie Fowler during the Hyundai Tournament of Champions

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10:01:28 AM ET. 04/20/2014




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KAPALUA, Hawaii – And on his third drive to try and start the 2013 season, Rickie Fowler nailed it – 361 yards, dead center.

Nice going, kid.

“Saved the best for last,” Fowler said.

He was smiling, because after the first two attempts to get this PGA Tour season going, this one counted. Friday’s drive in a pelting rain went for naught, because play was wiped out after two hours. And Sunday’s drive? A 3-wood that he caught “a little thin” and hit barely 250 yards? That, too, didn’t count because after a few holes Fowler & Co. saw their efforts tossed.

Ah, but on the third take, things went beautifully. Not only did Fowler make par at the first, he followed with five birdies in a round of 3-under 70 to get himself into the thick of things at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which regardless of what happens the rest of the way is already a memorable tournament.

Having originally been penciled in for a Monday finish, the season opener morphed into a Monday start thanks to unrelenting wind. Finally, on the fourth day, the fury gave everyone a break.

How different was the Plantation Course, up here high in the hill above the Kapalua Resort?

“Significant,” said Steve “Pepsi” Hale. “It was night and day. Wasn’t even the same course (as Friday, Saturday, or Sunday).”

Hale’s boss, Keegan Bradley birdied the par-5 18th to shoot 2-under 71, one of 24 players in the field of 30 to get into red numbers. What sort of statement does that make? Consider that in abbreviated tries to play Friday (two players) and Sunday (one), hardly anyone got below par.

The true joy of seeing the 2013 season get going – finally! – was accompanied by seeing the Plantation Course get the opportunity to show its true self. Granted, it’s an expansive piece of property that can be set up at over 7,400 yards, but the thrill of this place is the dramatic elevation changes that provide unique shots you won’t have anywhere else – from massive drives downhill at the first, sixth, seventh and 18th, to uphill marches at 4, 9, 10, 13, and 15.

Never mistaken as a classic layout, the Plantation Course is a blast, even more so when the sun is shining and the wind is manageable – as it was Monday morning for the long-anticipated first round of the year. And surely, players liked the Plantation Course that greeted them Monday much better than the one they saw the previous three days.

“Crazy things can happen when it’s going like this,” Fowler said, and to emphasize what he means, consider this: One of the tour’s shorter hitters, Mark Wilson, shared the lead at 4 under with a pair of guys who can move it from one time zone to the next, Nick Watney and Dustin Johnson.

“A good start,” said Wilson of his bogey-free round. “Just kind of trying to be patient with the wind and hitting some weird clubs with different yardages and stuff.”

While the wind wasn’t nearly as sturdy as it was the previous three days, it still offered some wild rides. Everyone in the field, for instance, drove it more than 300 yards at the 527-yard, par-4 seventh. Oh, and the first 400-yard drive of the year? It came from the irrepressible Ian Poulter, who launched it just right of the green at the 427-yard 12th.

For the opening round, the field average was a tidy 71.933, a tribute to how much conditions have changed because in the canceled efforts of Friday and Sunday, players were a combined 41 over for the 152 holes they played.

“Everything’s good,” Carl Pettersson said after posting 70.

Two who would second that sentiment are Scott Stallings and Ben Curtis. Having been 7 over through five holes Friday, Stallings loved having that tossed out, especially since he shot 1-under 72. And Curtis? A day before he was 5 over after two holes, so losing that in favor of the 3-under 70 that he signed for is enjoyment, for sure.

Fact is, most of the 30 players in the field were in better moods Monday morning. Golf was back – and on a playable course.

“The rules officials have the course set up so that it’s playable,” Fowler said. He was quick to point out that he had the benefit of having played some holes earlier in the week – eight Friday, six Sunday – and even if they were tossed out, “I actually got the chance to get loose.”

Then again, a guy who never hit a shot Friday or Sunday, Watney, went out and shook off a rough start by playing the final 14 hole in 6 under. It included the round’s only eagle at the 615-yard 18th, his 340-yard drive followed by a 257-yard approach to 68 feet.

“It’s always a bonus to make a putt like that,” Watney said.

Barely after having commented on his round, Watney took a deep breath and eyed the lunch room. He had perhaps 20 minutes to grab something to eat and head to the tee at the par-4 10th where he was going to embark on Round 2 of this unfortunately disjointed tournament.

“The marathon’s half-over,” Watney said. “I guess when you’re playing well, you want to keep going.”

But even if you’re not – and with rounds of 79 and 78, respectively, George McNeill and Kyle Stanely are two who didn’t have it going – you’ve got to keep going. The dash is on to squeeze in 54 holes, to get this show over by Tuesday afternoon so that players, officials and most importantly all the television equipment can cross a short body of water and get to Oahu for Thursday’s Sony Open.

It’s a grind, no doubt. Definitely for officials, certainly for players, but let’s not forget the caddies. This is as tough a golf course to walk and to do so for 36 holes is tough stuff. Fowler smiled, though, because he didn’t seemed concerned about his man, Joey Skovron.

“He’s a stud,” Fowler said.

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