KAPALUA, Hawaii – Steve Stricker, considered the best putter on the PGA Tour, felt as though he couldn’t miss Saturday at Kapalua. That meant big trouble for the rest of the field at the Tournament of Champions.
Stricker made even some of the longer putts look like tap-ins on his way to a 10-under 63, giving him a five-shot lead over Webb Simpson halfway through the PGA Tour’s season opener.
Stricker played the final five holes in 5 under, which included a 3-wood up the hill and into a blazing sun that settled about 12 feet away for eagle. That allowed Stricker to get some separation from Simpson, and from the amazing eagle-eagle finish by Kevin Na.
Stricker was at 15-under 131, two shots off the 36-hole record that Ernie Els set in 2003.
Na, six strokes back at 9 under, wasn’t even part of the picture until he holed a 5-iron from 221 yards for eagle on the 554-yard 17th hole, then hit 3-wood down the hill on the par-5 18th to about 10 feet for another eagle.
“I think it’ll be the best finish of my life,” Na said.
It turned a good round into a 64, and it at least kept Na in the hunt against a 27-man field that suddenly felt much smaller when Stricker put together a strong finish of his own.
Only eight players were within 10 shots of Stricker.
As much as he loves starting his year in Kapalua – this is his third straight trip, the longest streak of anyone in the field – Stricker has yet to hoist a trophy with a lei draped around his neck. He took a big step toward that on another day of glorious sunshine.
Starting with a simple up-and-down on the par-5 ninth, Stricker was 7 under over the last 10 holes.
“I felt like I was going to make every putt I looked at for a while,” Stricker said.
His big run began with a wedge against the wind that landed softly 7 feet below the hole on No. 14. After his eagle on the 15th, Stricker holed a 15-foot birdie from the front of the green on the 17th, and finished with a long two-putt birdie from just off the 18th.
He has played the par 5s in 9 under for the week.
“I’ve had some good success here,” said Stricker, who has lost in a playoff and tied for fourth over the last four years. “The more times you can play it, the better off you are. I’d sure like to get off to a good start this year.”
Rory Sabbatini has been here before, though that didn’t keep him from a two-shot penalty at the start of his round for being late to the first tee. It was a bizarre penalty, only because the putting green is about 25 yards below the first tee.
His caddie, Mick Doran, took the blame. Instead of looking at the group ahead tee off, he was checking his watch – and his watch was four minutes slow. They rushed to the tee, but it was too late.
Sabbatini had a 70 – including the two-shot penalty – and was 12 shots behind.
“It’s the first time ever for me on Tour. I know it’s the first time for Mick,” Sabbatini said. “I guess neither of us were really paying attention. Just one of those goofy moments.”
Last year, Doran was on the bag for Camilo Villegas, who was disqualified for tapping down grass as his ball was rolling back toward him.
Martin Laird had a birdie putt on No. 13 to get within one shot of Stricker, his playing partner. Four holes later, he was seven shots behind, hurt mostly by missing two short birdie putts and by hitting his tee shot into the trees on the 17th. A search party found more than a dozen balls, none belonging to Laird.
The Scot had a 70 and was at 8-under 138, along with first-round leader Jonathan Byrd, who had a 71. Chris Kirk was among the early starters and shot 66, though that turned out to be ordinary by the end of the day.
The trade wind has been strong enough to get players’ attention, yet gentle enough to allow for good scoring. The key is to keep the ball out of trouble, to be in the right spots on the greens and to make a few putts.
It’s that final area where Stricker has few peers.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that when he arrived in Hawaii from a short winter break in Wisconsin – with a three-day detour to Phoenix to play some golf – he focused primarily on his putting.
The closest he came to make a bogey came on the par-4 sixth, when he found a bunker at the top of the hill, failed to reach the green and chipped 8 feet by the hole. He poured in the par putt, rolled in a 25-foot birdie on the seventh and was on his way.
“I kind of ran with it,” Stricker said. “I felt good. I started making some birdies, and I was patient when I wasn’t making some. So it was good, and that’s what you have to do when you get it going, it just kind of keep it going.”
Even so, Stricker was quick to point that while a five-shot lead usually comes in handy on Saturday, this is only the halfway point for an experimental Monday finish. Besides, Stricker doesn’t always make it easy on himself with a big lead.
In his most recent win, he had a four-shot lead at the turn at the Memorial and hung on to win by one shot.
Simpson, playing in the group ahead of Stricker, birdied three of his last four holes to get into the final group. He had made only two birdies until that point, but wasn’t about to fret.
“It’s the kind of course where you’re going to have plenty of birdie opportunities,” Simpson said. “So if you can keep your ball in play, you’ll probably make a few.”
He might need a few more to put pressure on Stricker, who came to Hawaii to see what kind of shape his game was in, and got a pretty good idea after the first two rounds of the year.