KAPALUA, Hawaii – Being at Kapalua has been the paradise that Robert Garrigus imagined.
He hasn’t been on Maui since his honeymoon. He is one of the newcomers to the Tournament of Champions, but he had heard stories that the Plantation Course favors the big hitters, and no one hits it longer and more consistently than Garrigus. He has led the PGA Tour in driving distance the past two years.
But if it’s surprising to see Garrigus atop the leaderboard going into the weekend, it has more to do with one of his shorter clubs.
Garrigus hit a 61-degree sand wedge to an inch on the third hole. He hit the same club to 2 inches on the 10th hole, surprised it didn’t drop for eagle. So he must have thought he was due when yet another wedge on the 16th hole landed some 15 feet beyond the cup in just the right spot, catching the grain that grows toward the Pacific Ocean and trickling into the hole for an eagle.
He followed that with two birdies for a 10-under 63 – matching his career-low round – and he had a one-shot lead over Carl Pettersson through two rounds of the PGA Tour’s season opener.
“My wedge game is exactly where I want it to be,” Garrigus said. “I worked very hard at my wedge game, and today I almost made … I think four wedges actually hit the hole.”
One of them was a 30-yard pitch on the sixth hole, the others were full swings.
“I love Maui,” he said. “I came over here on my honeymoon, and it feels great to be in this position.”
Garrigus was at 14-under 132.
He qualified for this winners-only event in the final PGA Tour event of the year at Disney. This week is as relaxing as there is on tour, with only a 32-man field and no cut, meaning it’s the first time Garrigus has teed it up with a guarantee of making money.
“I told everybody, ‘I’m not going to really be nervous unless I’m in the last group,”’ Garrigus said. “Here we go.”
It’s the last few groups on the weekend that can put a little edge on this working vacation.
He will be paired with Pettersson, who birdied the last hole for a 67. Jonathan Byrd had a 68 and was another stroke back.
The heavy hitters follow.
Ernie Els, who set the tournament record at Kapalua in 2003, got back into the mix with a 9-under 64. Steve Stricker didn’t make a bogey in calm conditions and shot a 67. Francesco Molinari of Italy recovered from a bogey-bogey start with eight birdies for a 67. FedEx Cup champion Jim Furyk had another 68. All of them were only four shots behind.
“Everybody is jammed up there,” Stricker said. “If the weather stays like this, there’s going to be low scores. You’ve got to keep going.”
Also in the mix was Dustin Johnson, among seven players who had the lead at one point Friday. He ran off five straight birdies before trying to drive the 14th green, losing his ball into the native grass and taking double bogey.
“If I drive it straight, it definitely favors long hitters,” Johnson said.
Garrigus can go toe-to-toe with anyone off the tee, and he showed that coming in. He ripped a 392-yard drive on the 17th, a big number considering the lack of a strong wind, and stuffed his approach to about 6 feet. And on the 684-yard closing hole, he had a 5-iron for his second shot after a 394-yard drive.
For all his length, it’s hard to ignore the short aspects of his game.
He uses a 28-inch putter – he once left one in Tiger Woods’ locker to give to his daughter, Sam – to help on the greens.
“He was making fun of me on the putting green,” Garrigus said. “He was like, ‘You putt with that?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m sponsored by U.S. Kids Golf, you didn’t know that? It’s all about the kids.”’
But the key has been the wedge game.
Garrigus, who blew a three-shot lead on the 18th hole and lost in a playoff at Memphis last year, was talking to swing coach Jim Ahern a few days before Disney when he was asked why he hadn’t performed better.
Garrigus told him the wedge game was awful, or words to that effect. Ahern suggested he work on his wedges.
It was really simple.
“That week of Disney, I had eight shots inside 100 yards and never had it outside 3 feet – and I made one,” Garrigus said. “So it’s hilarious to think that little amount of work I put in is paying dividends this big.”
He didn’t stop with Disney. He hit three bags of balls from inside 100 yards on the range after Thanksgiving, and he is growing more confident with each shot.
Garrigus still believes Kapalua is for big hitters. The fairways are so wide they are hard to miss. But what he has found so appealing is hitting it so far that he leaves himself such a short distance – a wedge distance – to the green.
And he loves his wedges.
“When I launch a driver and I catch it good, I’m inside 100 yards and that’s what I’m working on all winter,” he said. “It’s kind of fun.”
For two days, it’s been paradise.