Johnson has lead at Kapalua
KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — The players sat around all week waiting for the wind to relent so the PGA Tour season could finally get going. Once it did, the Tournament of Champions shifted into overdrive. It was the opening round and “moving day” in a span of 10 hours at Kapalua.
Dustin Johnson was in high gear for the entire ride.
He showed up on the west coast of Maui a week before the tournament was supposed to start, wanting to shake off whatever rust had accumulated in the last month and try out some of his new equipment. He played six practice rounds, none in the kind of wind that scrapped the opening round twice — Friday and Sunday — and was so bad on Saturday that no one hit a shot.
Johnson had to wait four days to hit a shot on the Plantation Course. Once he got started, he hardly missed a shot.
In 36 holes on Monday, he had seven putts at eagle. He made the last one from about 6 feet to polish off a 7-under 66. Combined with a 69 in the morning — another solid round that included a pair of three-putt bogeys and a three-putt par over five holes — he had a three-shot lead over defending champion Steve Stricker.
“I hit the ball really well this afternoon,” he said.
Johnson is the master of the understatement, but only when he knows his game is working as well as he can expect. He was at 11-under 135, and it took only one day and two rounds for him to separate himself from the 30-man field of PGA Tour winners from last year.
Stricker holed out from 67 yards for eagle on the 18th hole and added a pair of birdies on the front nine for a 67, putting him in the final group for a chance to become the first American to win back-to-back at Kapalua.
The only other players within five shots of Johnson were Bubba Watson, who was four shots behind after going 70-69; Keegan Bradley (71-69) and Brandt Snedeker, the FedEx Cup champion who posted a pair of 70s.
That sets up an 18-hole finish today, with a forecast for slightly diminished wind.
Stricker normally would be a tough guy to have at your side on this golf course, particularly the way he putts. But a strange week took on another bizarre quality with this development — after waiting all week for the event to start, Stricker didn’t think he could finish.
He began feeling pain in his left side about a month ago, and it won’t seem to go away. Stricker limped badly down the hill on the 18th — right before his pitch shot rode the slope and the wind to perfection for an eagle — and the pain never went away. The good news for Stricker is that it never got worse.
“It felt as crappy on the first hole as the last hole,” he said.
Stricker doesn’t know the cause of the pain that shoots down his left side. He doesn’t know how he will play today, and the prospects of making up a three-shot deficit against Johnson on this golf course are stout even in the best of health.
“You’ve just got to go out and play, and play your hardest and see what happens,” Stricker said. “I’ve been in that position where he’s at now. It’s a tough spot. It’s tough to win in front. We’ve got really nothing to lose tomorrow and it makes it a little bit easier for us, but tougher on him.”
No matter the player or their position on the board, most were thrilled to be playing.
The wind was ripping down the mountain at dawn, even as players were on the putting green under floodlights for the 7:10 a.m. HST start. But in the half-hour before the tournament was supposed to start, it died enough that they could play.
That’s not to suggest it was easy. The tour tried to slow the greens to keep golf balls from moving, and these might be the slowest surfaces they get all year. But they could play, which was a big deal, even though the tournament started on the day it was supposed to end.
The wind still blew — hard.
It was tough enough that Stricker, who started his second round on the 10th hole, had 97 yards to the front of the green and hit 7-iron. He still came up short. Johnson had a 9-iron from 100 yards on six occasions, though he also hit a sand wedge from 160 yards. That was the measure of the wind.
Through it all, Johnson was simply superb.
“The way he’s playing, the way he’s striking it, the way he’s controlling his golf ball, it’s pretty good right now,” said Watson, who played with Johnson. “And I don’t see any different tomorrow from him.”
Beyond the scorecard, Johnson’s two rounds went like this:
—He missed only three greens in regulation.
—He made only three bogeys, two of them on three-putts from inside 25 feet, the other on a drive he smashed on the 17th hole that went through the fairway and into the hazard for a penalty drop. Johnson tried to “bunt” his driver and hit it pure, like everything else. His caddie wanted him to hit 3-wood.
—He had four putts at eagle on the last seven holes. Two of them were on par 5s — a 259-yard 3-wood into the wind on the 15th, and a 5-iron from 243 yards on the 18th hole with the wind at his back. He drove just off the green on 425-yard 12th hole downwind, and the 292-yard 14th hole into the wind.
“I’m pretty pleased with my equipment. I’m pretty pleased with my game right now,” Johnson said.
Stricker said at the start of the tournament that he was going into semi-retirement this year, playing only about 10 events. He won’t return to the PGA Tour after this week until the end of February at the Match Play Championship. And he’s not going to roll over for Johnson, regarded as the best American player under 30.
Johnson, though, will gladly take his position. He will be trying to win in his sixth straight season since leaving college, the longest streak of any player since Tiger Woods. And he won the last two 54-hole events on the PGA Tour, at the hurricane-shortened Barclays in 2011 and rain-delayed Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in 2009.
“Just happened to win those two events,” Johnson said. “I’ve still got 18 more holes of golf. It wouldn’t matter if it was 72 holes or 54. Tomorrow is still the last round and there’s 18 holes to play, so got to get the job done.”