KAPALUA, Hawaii – A new PGA Tour season began with a familiar name atop the leaderboard Friday at Kapalua.
Defending champion Jonathan Byrd ran off six straight birdies early in his round, then stalled on the back nine and settled for a 6-under 67 that gave him a one-shot lead in the Tournament of Champions.
Byrd hasn’t won since his playoff victory a year ago in the season opener. He felt a little uptight starting a new season, wanting to get off to a good start in breezy conditions on the Plantation Course.
But after two holes, he looked as comfortable as ever.
It must have felt as if last season never ended for Webb Simpson, a two-time winner who was second in the FedEx Cup and on the PGA Tour money list. Simpson played the last five holes on the front nine in 5 under and shot 68 to match Steve Stricker, Michael Bradley and Martin Laird.
Thirteen players in the 27-man field of PGA Tour winners broke par in gorgeous conditions along the cliffs of Maui. It’s the smallest field since this event moved to Kapalua, hurt by 11 players who didn’t or couldn’t make it to Maui, and by Lucas Glover having to withdraw Friday morning because of a sprained knee from a paddle board accident last Saturday.
Just like any new season, there was a degree of nervousness and uncertainty, starting with the defending champion.
“You’re never sure what you’re going to get the first round of the year,” Byrd said.
It was nearly a repeat performance from last year, when Byrd started his season with five birdies on the front nine, then holing out a wedge on the 10th for eagle to get to 7 under early in his round before he settled into pars.
This time, the culprit was a bad swing on the ninth fairway when Byrd tried to hit driver off the deck to reach the par-5 green into the wind, and instead found a bunker from 60 yards away that led to a bogey.
He was even more disappointed at the end of the round, when he three-putted for par.
“You’re leading the golf tournament and you walk off a hole embarrassed,” Byrd said.
Laird had some bad feelings early with consecutive bogeys early in his round, but bounced back with a 33 on the back nine for his 68. Stricker, the highest-ranked American in the world at No. 6, put his 5-iron into the gorge on the par-3 eighth for a double bogey, and then he rallied strong. He birdied four of his last five holes.
“I wasn’t very happy at the time,” Stricker said. “I knew if I could get a good, decent round in – I was thinking get 3 under or something like that – I’d be OK. But I got a couple more than that coming in.”
PGA champion Keegan Bradley, the only major champion in the short field, holed out a wedge from short of the ninth green for eagle that sent him to a 69. Only six players broke 70 on what appeared to be relatively good scoring conditions.
The mountainous course was built for trade wind, and while it was breezy, it was not severe. But there are so many newcomers to Kapalua – a dozen of the 27 players – that it takes time to sort out the wind, the slope and the grain on the green.
Scott Piercy arrived on Christmas – he has a vacation place in nearby Kaanapali – and played the Plantation Course plenty of times to get ready for the new season.
“I saved all my worst shots for today,” he said after rallying for a 70.
Gary Woodland drove into the native grass and had to take a penalty drop on the ninth hole. He had 224 yards, up the hill and into a strong wind, and thought he had to blast a 3-wood to have any hope of getting to the green. He blasted it, all right, over the green and into the bleachers, though he managed to escape with par.
Brendan Steele said he picked up on the nuances of golf courses fairly easily in his rookie season. This was unlike any of those courses, however.
“The wind, the grain, the slope … you can look pretty silly,” he said after a 76.
Byrd said he rarely plays well when he feels confident; he’s better off feeling uneasy about his game, and that’s about how he felt when he woke up Friday morning.
He chunked his opening tee shot and had to make a long two-putt for par, but his fortunes turned quickly. From about 120 yards into the wind on the third hole, he played an 8-iron back in his stance and played a low draw that spun close to the cup and settled about 5 feet away. That was the first of six straight birdies, and just like that, Byrd was back atop the leaderboard.