HONOLULU – Maui is a reunion of winners. Oahu is more of a meet-and-greet.
The Sony Open is the first full-field event of the PGA Tour, a time filled with as much optimism as curiosity. It is not unusual to see veterans looking at names on the golf bags to figure out who some of these guys are. There are 26 rookies at Waialae, 10 of them who have never teed it up in any PGA Tour event.
“You walk on that range and you feel like you’re on a different tour,” Ernie Els said.
Paul Goydos, starting his 19th year on tour, mentioned that he had already met three players in the dining room.
Did they know him?
“Yeah, I think so,” Goydos said. “But when they say, ‘My dad loves your game,’ that’s when you know you’re in deep trouble.”
Goydos had hit his tee shot when he made a quick detour to the practice range to adjust his driver. When he got back to the first fairway, another player was right ahead of him. It was 20-year-old Bio Kim, the youngest player on tour this year, and among those who had never competed in a PGA Tour event.
Goydos introduced himself, and jokingly said, “I’m sure his dad has seen me play.” Kim, a South Korean who once lived in Irvine, Calif., for five years as a teenager, was asked if he knew anything about Goydos.
“You shot 59,” he said to him with a smile.
“At least I’m known for one thing,” said Goydos, who hit golf’s magic number at the John Deere Classic last year.
Such introductions are part of the charm of the Sony Open, a tournament that brings together veterans and rookies, old and new. The field includes 54-year-old Fred Funk, and he’s not even the oldest player at Waialae. That would be 67-year-old Dave Eichelberger, now a PGA club pro who recently won the Aloha Section and earned a spot in the field.
The rookies include Joseph Bramlett, a Stanford graduate who made it through Q-school on his first try and became the first player of black heritage since Tiger Woods to join the PGA Tour. There’s Keegan Bradley, the nephew of LPGA Tour star Pat Bradley, a pair of Nationwide Tour grads in Jamie Lovemark and Kevin Chappell.
This is the time to dream big.
Bramlett, who qualified for the U.S. Open last summer, knows he has never had any success on the PGA Tour. He also has never experienced any prolonged failure, which allows for such high hopes.
“Everyone is pretty optimistic,” Furyk said. “You’ve got goals, New Year’s resolutions, things you want to achieve. If you’re not optimistic this time of the year, I’d sure as hell hate to see what your attitude is like in October.
Ryan Palmer is the defending champion, and the field features four players from among the top 15 in the world, most of whom were at Kapalua last week for the season-opening Tournament of Champions.
Furyk had played four times before he got his PGA Tour card, and he remembers starting his rookie season in 1994 at the Sony Open. His father was with him and stepped away when Furyk took his spot on the practice range. Facing a hard Kona wind, into this face and blowing to the left, he took out a sand wedge and hit his first shot fat.
“I blew all this dirt and sand up in the air and it just coated the guy next to me, almost like I could hear it hitting him,” Furyk said. “I looked over to see who was behind me, and it was Lanny Wadkins.”
Another shot, same result.
Furyk tried his best to make light of the situation, no matter how mortified he was.
“I said, ‘I guess I’ll aim a little farther right on the next one,”’ Furyk said. “He was over his ball, and he looked up and said, ‘That would be nice.’ That was the only conversation.”
Welcome to the tour, kid.
Furyk turned out OK. He now has 16 wins, a major, a FedEx Cup title and he’s closing in on $50 million for his career.
The player getting most of the attention is Lovemark, who won the money list on the Nationwide Tour last year and was part of the three-way playoff in Arizona in 2009 that also featured Rickie Fowler.
Of the American rookies last year, the only guy who won a tournament was Derek Lamely in Puerto Rico, an opposite-field event. Then again, no one paid much attention to Ben Curtis in 2003 in his rookie year until he was holding the claret jug.
Most rookies at least have the experience of having played on the Nationwide Tour. They know what it’s like to look for a good hotel, leave early after missing the cut, and realize that it doesn’t take long for fortunes to change.
Goydos spent a couple of years on the old Hogan Tour, which he said helped – but only so far.
“The first tournament I played, I remember walking through the locker room and Davis Love was walking in the opposite direction,” Goydos said. “The guy looked 9 feet tall.”
One theory is that rookies are more optimistic because they don’t know what they’re getting into yet.
“The older you get, the less you realize you know,” Goydos said. “It’s the same way with golf. You get out here long enough, you realize, ‘Wow, it is really hard to win.’ But maybe that’s another reason why I’ve only won twice.”