HONOLULU (AP) — Jimmy Walker would love to have a fairy-tale finish at the Sony Open. Given the bad memories from this place, he was thrilled Thursday with the first chapter.
Walker hit 7-iron to 12 feet below the flag on the par-5 ninth to finish with an eagle for a 5-under 65, giving him a one-shot lead among the early starters in surprisingly calm conditions at Waialae Country Club.
Chad Campbell and Rory Sabbatini, who made their ’08 debut last week at the winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship, were among a half-dozen players at 66.
Tadd Fujikawa, meanwhile, was headed for a short week.
One year after he became the youngest player (16) in 50 years to make the cut on the PGA Tour, Fujikawa never recovered from a double bogey on the second hole. He didn’t make birdie until No. 12 and wound up with a 74, leaving him a long shot to earn his first paycheck since turning pro last summer. This is eighth event as a pro.
“I had a rough day,” Fujikawa said. “I’ve got to shoot a good round tomorrow to make the cut. I think I can do it. Anything is possible.”
Golf Channel began its broadcast without anchor Kelly Tilghman, serving a two-week suspension for saying with a laugh last week that the best way young players could take down Tiger Woods would be to “lynch him in a back alley.”
She was replaced in the booth Friday by Rich Lerner.
Walker is a big hitter from Texas who was the Nationwide Tour player of the year in 2004 and had high hopes for his rookie season on the PGA Tour when he came to the Sony Open in 2005. But he never made it to the first tee.
While hitting balls on the practice range that Monday, he felt his neck get stiff and was in so much pain he was taken to the emergency room for tests. He found out he had a bulging disk in his neck, and wound up playing only nine events that year. So he tried again the following season, only to shoot 80 in the first round and miss the cut.
Walker, who turns 29 next week, earned his way back to the big leagues after finishing 25th on the Nationwide money list, earning the last card. He was surprised his status got him in the Sony Open, and he came over to Hawaii with mixed emotions.
“When I saw I was getting in, I was like, ‘Oh, good. I get to go back to Hawaii.’ I’ve got some good memories,” he said, smiling wryly. “My wife stayed home; it hasn’t been a great couple of trips for us. When you get in, you’ve got to play.”
The blessing was playing well, starting with a birdie on No. 10, his first hole of a new season. He kept moving right along, using short irons from fairway and thick rough to get it close enough to make some putts, then finishing on the easy par-5 ninth with a 322-yard drive that left him a 7-iron for his second shot, and putt that put him atop the leaderboard.
“Too early for that,” Walker said. “I just want to keep playing well. You’d love for the fairy-tale ending, but there’s a lot of golf left. I feel good, and I hit it well, and I’m putting well. Just keep all that going, and it’ll be good.”
It was a good day for most, especially with only a trace of wind.
What kept the scores from being lower in such calm conditions was the rough, which is thicker than ever because of all the rain last month. The grass doesn’t look like the hay found at some majors, but with this Bermuda grass, the ball sinks to the bottom and makes it tough to get anywhere near the flag, or even on the green.
Campbell found that out immediately when his tee shot disappeared into the rough and he could only hit wedge out, leading to bogey. Then came an 8-iron that one-hopped into the hole on No. 3 for eagle, and he was on his way.
“If you get the ball in the fairway, you’ve got a chance to do something,” Campbell said.
For all the bad vibes that Walker had about Waialae, Campbell sees nothing but opportunity. He played in the final group two years ago with David Toms, finishing five shots behind.
Sabbatini also was runner-up that year and he presumably likes Waialae, although he refused to speak to reporters about his 66 or his eagle on the final hole that put him atop the leaderboard at the time.
Also at 66 was Kenneth Ferrie of England, who joined the PGA Tour this year. Ferrie hasn’t been heard from in this country since he played in the final group with Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open, which ended poorly for both of them.
Playing in the group ahead of Fujikawa was the other teenager at the Sony Open, 17-year-old amateur Alex Ching. His only birdie came at No. 9, and he shot a 72.
Michelle Wie is not playing for the first time in five years, which was duly noted by a sign in the backyard of a house along the first fairway. A year ago, the same homeowner posted a sign that said, “Wie, Why?” This time, the poster said, “Wie, Where?”