KAPALUA, Hawaii – Like most all-star tilts in professional sports, there’s rarely any defense at the SBS Tournament of Champions.
The winds that normally whistle up the mountainside off the Pacific Ocean at the year's lid-lifter, which is the closest thing golf has to a “midsummer classic,” were little more than a cooling breeze on Thursday on a Plantation Course that has been made even more vulnerable by heavy rains earlier in the week.
Idyllic views and fairways wide enough to hold even the most wayward shots, the Tournament of Champions is where pars go to die, and Day 1 at Kapalua didn’t disappoint.
Twenty-seven of the 32 players who made the trip to Maui were under par, led by Jimmy Walker, whose 8-under 65 included an eagle at the par-5 fifth hole and not even the hint of a bogey (he missed just one green).
It’s what the field has come to expect at the winners-only event, where the field average on a picturesque Thursday was 70.34 (par is 73).
Put an umbrella in an adult beverage and Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoʻole’s “Over the Rainbow” on a loop and score becomes relative, not to par but to how the rest of the pack is picking apart the sprawling layout.
Like the leaderboard on Sunday at the Masters, things can change quickly on the Plantation Course. Consider that Ryan Moore got off to a less-than-stellar start with back-to-back pars, which at Kapalua is movement in the wrong direction. Three holes later Moore was 4 under par with eagles at Nos. 3 and 5 and on his way to an opening 67 that left him tied for second place with Jim Herman and Justin Thomas.
Rookie Cody Gribble was in an even worse position following bogeys at the first and third holes, but finished his day at 4 under.
“You're reeling, no doubt,” Gribble said. “But I played much better after that, hit more fairways, had plenty of opportunities to make birdie. A little disappointed that I couldn't get to 5 or 6 [under], because that was right there to really push to 7.”
Only at Kapalua, which is Hawaiian for “go low,” or something like that, is a 4-under card after early miscues a score worth lamenting.
But low scores are part of the charm of the TOC, where Jordan Spieth scorched the field and the history books with a 30-under total and an eight-stroke romp last year.
There will be plenty of time for “good pars” and damage control as the season inches toward the major championships; for one week let them eat cake and enjoy the walk.
But then it wasn’t the scoring onslaught that was curious on Day 1, it was those who weren’t joining in the mayhem that stood out. With a few notable exceptions, the top of the game’s marquee got off to a more measured start than most of the rank and file.
It started with Spieth, who managed just two birdies on his outward loop and played his closing nine in 1 over par for a 72 to tie for 22nd.
“Looking at the board right now, somewhere in the low 20s is probably the winning score,” said Spieth, who in two previous starts at the TOC had just a single round in the 70s and was a combined 48 under par. “I need to try and shoot 7 [under] each day. It's certainly easier said than done, but we've also done it here before.”
But Spieth wasn’t the only star who didn’t exactly appear ready for primetime. Dustin Johnson, a former winner at Kapalua and the kind of bomber one would expect to feast on the defenseless course, rallied with a birdie at the last for a 4-under 69, but that was well off the pace set by Walker.
After more than three months of rest and rehabilitation, world No. 1 Jason Day bogeyed his second hole and carded a wild 70 that left him mired in the middle of the pack.
Although the Australian has plenty of room for improvement after being sidelined late last season with a back injury, he seemed pleased with his ball-striking if not his ability to score.
“The average winning score at this tournament is 22 under, so you’ve got to build on it each day and not make silly errors,” Day said. “If I can take out the errors tomorrow I can play some decent golf.”
But then “decent” golf really isn’t a recipe for success at the Tournament of Champions, particularly without the kona winds that normally gust across the former pineapple plantation.
A successful start to the new year requires a singular mindset and plenty of offense, just like every other all-star game.