Eye Opener: The season-opening event at Kapalua provided plenty of fireworks
Last week the PGA Tour made its annual season-opening visit to Maui, and for a while it looked as if there was going to be trouble in paradise. A bevy of big names passed on the working vacation, and a pair who did show up two-time defending champion Geoff Ogilvy and Camilo Villegas bowed out early in self-inflicted cock-ups. Meanwhile, Stuart Appleby misplaced the magic wand he used to putt his way to a 59, and Zach Johnson's nasty toe injury necessitated an adventure in footwear. But in the end the Hyundai Tournament of Champions was a resounding success, thanks to a week's worth of stellar shotmaking, the continued brilliance of Graeme McDowell, a sexy new romance, the country charm of Robert Garrigus, a nail-biting finish that played out in prime time across the mainland and, ultimately, the big heart of Jonathan Byrd, who prevailed in sudden death.
Byrd, who punched his ticket to Kapalua in his last 2010 start with a walk-off ace in Las Vegas, is the Tour pro from central casting, with a square jaw, slick Polo wardrobe and syrupy swing. But there's an admirable flintiness there, too. His first victory, as a rookie in 2002 at the Buick Challenge, came by way of a final-round eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle surge. On Sunday at Kapalua's Plantation course, he withstood a G-Mac attack during which McDowell made 11 birdies in the first 16 holes (!) to reach 23 under. Byrd's exquisite up and down on the par-5 15th pushed him to 24 under. Garrigus hit a career 283-yard five-wood on the 72nd hole and could have eagled to get to 25 under, but he pulled his 13-footer ever so slightly. Byrd gave up a lot of distance, but he was never going to make a mistake in the playoff, and the high-strung Garrigus flinched on the second extra hole, lipping out a three-footer to end his bid.
Byrd is pure class and afterward saluted Garrigus, saying, "What a great display of sportsmanship. He was smiling after he missed that putt. My hat's off to him." Understated in manner and old-school in his tastes, Byrd is a Hogan fan who eschews a golf glove. He now has more career victories than Villegas and Hunter Mahan and Bubba Watson and Anthony Kim and a lot of other players who get a lot more attention. Maybe with this gritty performance on a larger stage he'll finally start to get his due. "This is definitely the biggest tournament I've ever won," Byrd said. "So this is definitely a springboard for me."
Byrd's noteworthy victory capped an extremely lively week. The opening-day pairing that created the most buzz was McDowell and Mahan, a reprise of their freighted Ryder Cup singles match. Mahan downplayed the chance to exact a tiny bit of revenge "He's a great guy, and I like playing with him" but during the first round he bested McDowell 2 up. (Or, by more conventional scoring methods, 70 to 71.) The mano a mano with McDowell was only part of Mahan's eventful journey. It took him 25 hours to get from his home in Dallas to Maui thanks to a series of travel disasters. Upon his arrival his scraggly beard became such a talking point he let his Twitter followers vote on whether he should keep it for his wedding on Jan. 15 to Kandi Harris in Dallas, at which Tour players Ben Crane and John Rollins will be among the attendees. "Most of them want me to shave it," Mahan says. "I understand." Even with a third-round 78 Mahan says the pressure of the impending nuptials didn't weigh on him in Maui. "Not at all. But Kandi's the one dealing with all of that." So if you spend the week before your wedding in paradise, what's left for the honeymoon? "Snow," says Mahan. "Aspen, here we come."
McDowell, meanwhile, was the event's headliner, or, at the very least, the highest-ranked player in the field, as the U.S. Open champ and Ryder Cup hero has ascended to fifth in the World Ranking. Tiger Woods (second) and Phil Mickelson (fourth) annually skip the trip to Kapalua, while two top Euros, Lee Westwood (first) and Rory McIlroy (10th), had made noises about wanting to play but begged off, citing the silly xenophobic rule that limits them, as non-PGA Tour members, to 11 domestic starts. Their grumbling may have merely been posturing in the ongoing tour wars, but in any case their star power was certainly missed, especially during the first round, when the top three on the leader board were Byrd, Carl Pettersson and Crane.
The real story of the first round was loose impediments. Ogilvy slipped on a few at the beach and cut his right index finger badly enough that he was forced to withdraw on Thursday morning. It took Villegas 14 1/2 holes to outdo Ogilvy, as he brushed away a divot while his ball was rolling back to his feet after a botched pitch. An alert TV viewer spotted the infraction and tweeted about it, but it was not brought to the attention of Tour officials or Villegas until long after he had signed his scorecard. He was subsequently disqualified, touching off the usual tired debate about the fairness of having Big Brother affect the competition. Hey, Villegas broke the rules and signed an incorrect scorecard. End of story.
For poor Zach Johnson, his impediment was a loose nail on his right big toe, which he smashed the week before when he stumbled on stairs. The toe became infected and swollen, forcing him to don golf sandals throughout the practice rounds. For the tournament proper Johnson wore regular golf shoes with a twist he cut a silver-dollar-sized hole in the leather of the right one to make room for his swollen tootsy. When it drizzled during the first round, he wrapped this homely contraption in a plastic bag to keep his sock dry. Johnson limped his way to 23rd place; his wife, Kim, dubbed the daily drama ToeÂgate. That is not to be confused with PutterÂgate, which began when Appleby, who can occasionally be a world-class space cadet, somehow lost his prized Odyssey White Hot XG330 on the eve of the first round. He was forced to buy a different model at the pro shop to use on Thursday. A Golf Channel staffer heard about the disappearance, realized that the stray putter he had found was Appleby's and returned it.
Amid all this intrigue there was some golf played, too, and a lot of it was scintillating. During the first round Bubba Watson put in an early bid for shot of the year when, from 306 yards on the 18th hole, he smote a driver off the deck that had 40 or 50 yards of fade for the lefthander. Bubba's ball bounced and rolled and curled and trickled to within 10 feet of the cup, resulting in an eagle and further enhancement to his reputation as the Tour's preeminent trick-shot artist. The par of the year, so far, came on Friday, by way of Jason Day. On the par-4 13th tee he took a huge divot with his driver, foozling his tee ball exactly 106 yards. Undeterred, Day employed the same club for his second shot. "You've got some balls to use driver again," said playing partner Justin Rose. Day slashed his approach into an awkward spot in a greenside bunker, blasted out to 20 feet and then brushed in the putt. Ho hum.
Garrigus roared into the lead on Friday with a 10-under 63 that included a holed wedge shot on 16 and four other wedges dropped to within four feet. Until last week the six-year veteran from Nampa, Idaho, was best known for his 72nd-hole meltdown in Memphis last June, when he dumped his tee shot in a lake, made triple bogey and then lost a playoff to Westwood. That bitter defeat came with the added indignity of Garrigus's sweating out the seat of his khaki trousers, resulting in an unfortunate nickname bestowed by the caddies: Swamp Ass. Thanks to tremendous width in his backswing and a huge shoulder turn, Garrigus has become, statistically, the longest hitter on Tour (315.5-yard average in 2010), but he's always been held back by a wedge game that he describes, with typical candor, as "crappy." Three days before leaving for last year's season-ender at Disney, he had a chance encounter with Champions tour veteran Jim Ahern at the TPC Scottsdale, Garrigus's home course. ("I'm not a country club guy.") Ahern watched Garrigus hit a few long irons and said, "Tell me why you haven't won 10 times on Tour?" They spent the next three days working on Garrigus's wedge game, and he flew straight to the Disney, where, in danger of losing his card for 2011, his precision from 100 yards and in helped produce a feel-good victory.
Garrigus's wedge play is even sharper now he spent all winter working with Ahern but the key to his renaissance is a sunny attitude. Garrigus started his third round by playing the first two holes in three over par. A lot of pros pay lip service to how lucky they are to play a game for a living; Garrigus, who has been candid about overcoming drug and alcohol addictions, actually believes it. On the 3rd tee he looked out at the ocean, breathed in the fragrant island air and told his caddie, Mark (Shoestring) West, "This is awesome. I doubled the 1st hole, bogeyed the 2nd hole and I couldn't care less." He battled back with five birdies and then, after having "annihilated" his drive, dropped a 57-footer for eagle on 18 to tie Byrd and Steve Stricker for the lead.
Garrigus's passionate fist pumps on the 18th green were the day's defining highlight, but the biggest buzz came by way of Dustin Johnson, or, more specifically, his gallery, where LPGA starlet Natalie Gulbis was spotted. Rumors of their romance had been floating around the golf world for at least a month; on Saturday, Gulbis coyly confirmed to Golf.com that she and Johnson were dating, a coupling of good looks and talent and marketing muscle that instantly makes them golf's most glamorous twosome.
Byrd, who turns 33 on Jan. 27, will never generate any tabloid heat he is a God-fearing Southern gentleman who is married with a four-year-old son, Jackson, and a two-year-old daughter, Caroline. Last week Jackson and his dad had a nightly ritual of stealing away to a hotel hot tub to soak under the stars. Byrd is prone to contemplating life's big questions; he says he enjoyed his on-course struggles during most of last year because it was a needed test of character. Now, after his latest victory, when Byrd looks to the heavens, he no longer needs to wonder about his place in the golf universe.