HONOLULU – Ryan Palmer tried to pretend that his good opening round in the Sony Open never happened. He played just as well Friday, closing with two birdies for a 4-under 66 that gave him a one-shot lead over some familiar company.
Having stumbled into an article about how defending champion Zach Johnson never looks ahead, Palmer stayed calm in an ocean breeze and surged into the lead at Waialae with a drive so big on the par-5 18th that he had only an 8-iron into the green for an easy birdie.
He was at 9-under 131, and among the group one shot behind was Chad Campbell, his neighbor from the Dallas suburbs.
They decided to escape the cold and head for the California desert to get ready for their season opener, playing two rounds together on courses used for the Bob Hope Classic next week.
The stakes are higher at the Sony Open, although neither let on who claimed the cash last week.
“Let’s call it a push. It was give-or-take $5,000 on the last hole,” Campbell said with a wink and a smile.
Campbell, who had a 64, is happy to be in Honolulu for reasons beyond the fact Waialae is one of his favorite courses. A year ago, he was on the plane to the middle of the Pacific Ocean when he realized he forgot to formally enter, and he had to turn around and go home.
Asked if he found that funny, Campbell deadpanned, “Not really.”
A coincidence, at least?
“More of an inconvenience,” Campbell said.
They are part of a crammed leaderboard going into the weekend, typical of the first full-field event of the PGA Tour season, when pins typically are a little more generous to help get 144 players through the tiny property.
Johnson looked every bit the part of defending champion with eight birdies. He looked anything but that with one bad break on the 17th hole that led to a triple bogey. Feeling heavy sand under his feet from a deep bunker, he didn’t realize there was hardly any sand at all until his ball sailed over the green into a plugged lie in another bunker.
It was so bad that Johnson had to play back toward the tee to get it out of the bunker, chipped poorly and fell down the leaderboard. Then, one he thought was a perfect tee shot tumbled into the rough and he wound up with par. Then came a three-putt bogey.
“I’ve never thrown it in, but I’ve been really anxious to get off the golf course,” Johnson said. “At that point, I was really close.”
He turned it around with a 6-iron into 12 feet on the second, one of his best shot of an otherwise great round, and that settled him. Johnson finished with two birdies and was right back in the hunt.
Also at 8-under 132 was Robert Allenby, who came to Hawaii after two straight victories in South Africa and Australia to close out the year. He severely twisted his ankle stepping off a curb Monday and has been hobbling around. He also is playing more conservatively than usual, and it might be helping.
“I’m managing my way around the golf course,” Allenby said. “When you feel good, you play a little more aggressively. Now I’m backing off a little bit, hitting into little areas, hoping to make up-and-down or hit it close. I’ve still got the confidence I could win the tournament.”
Seventeen players were separated by four shots going into the weekend.
Steve Stricker, who has gone 24 holes without a bogey, had a 67 and was joined in the group at 7-under 133 by John Merrick (68) and Jeff Quinney (67). Another shot back was Davis Love III, who birdied his last hole for a 69, and Masters champion Angel Cabera (68), who had coach Charlie Epps on the bag when his caddie was sick.
Paul Goydos, the 2007 winner at Waialae, had a tournament-low 63 and was in the group at 135.
With so much drama at the top of the leaderboard, the bottom carried some excitement, too. Aaron Goldberg, a Monday qualifier in his first PGA Tour event, was in the middle of the pack until he made double bogeys and on the 16th and 17th holes, chopped up the easy 18th and stood over a 5-foot putt to make the cut. He made it.
Vijay Singh had 72 and made the cut on the number.
Among those not so fortunate was John Daly (71) and 19-year-old Tadd Fujikawa, who was around the cut line until hitting into the canal and then hitting a tree for double bogey on the par-5 ninth, the easiest hole on the course.
Rickie Fowler, the 21-year-old rookie who came to Honolulu with much hype, shot 75-72 and missed the cut.
The trick for Palmer is to keep following Johnson’s advice and start from scratch on Saturday.
“It’s kept me calm,” Palmer said. “I’m not going to sit here and say I’m not going to think about being in the lead. Who doesn’t think about it when they tee off on Saturday in the final group. I’ll just go play golf and see what happens.”