KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Jimmy Walker was surprised by the break on the green on one hole. He was fooled by the wind on the next hole. And when he finished his third round Sunday at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, he wasn’t sure what to think except to be happy that his final putt fell for birdie and a share of the lead.
In his second year playing at Kapalua, he’s still not all that comfortable.
Tied for the lead going into the final round? He’s a lot more comfortable than he was about 15 months ago.
Walker did most of his damage early with five birdies in 10 holes, and a late birdie gave him a 6-underr 67 and a share of the lead with Hideki Matsuyama. The 22-year-old from Japan made four birdies on his last six holes, including a delicate chip to the par-5 18th that he played beautifully, and matched the best score of the tournament for the second straight day with a 66.
They were at 17-under 202, two shots clear of Bae Sang-Moon (69) and Patrick Reed (68).
Walker will have a chance to become the fifth player to win on both PGA Tour courses in the Hawaii swing. He won the Sony Open a year ago, part of a stretch in which he won three times in eight starts. He has experience, sure, along with some nerves.
“I’m sure I’m going to feel more comfortable, just being out here longer, more mature, more experienced, that type thing,” he said. “I’ll tell you I was nervous driving to the first tee on Friday for the first round and didn’t eat all my breakfast this morning because I was pumped about the day. So I’ll be excited and ready to go.”
The first PGA Tour event of the year doesn’t have a cast of stars with Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and Martin Kaymer staying at home, though the co-leaders going into the Monday finish are examples of why it’s getting tougher to win on the PGA Tour.
Walker is going for his fourth victory since his inaugural win at the Frys.com Open to start the 2013-14 season, and he was among the few bright spots in a U.S. loss at the Ryder Cup last September. A victory would make him only the fifth player to win at both courses on the Hawaii swing.
Matsuyama was the first rookie to win the Japan Golf Tour money list, played in the Masters twice as an amateur (both times making the cut) and had a breakthrough win last year at the Memorial. He is a strong player, with a pause at the top of his swing and plenty of power through impact.
Only three other players have won at Kapalua in their debut since this winners-only event moved to Kapalua in 1999. Matsuyama is not sure why he is playing so well, except for the scenery.
“I like the view and so I like the course,” he said.
The show doesn’t belong entirely to them, of course. Johnson was two shots behind going into the final round last year.
Brendon Todd (69) and Russell Henley (70) were three shots back and still very much in the game.
Henley was among four players tied for the lead going into Sunday and played reasonably well except for a few mistakes. One was a chip on the reachable sixth hole, which moved about 5 feet and just onto the green, leaving a fast putt. He three-putted, turning birdie into bogey.
Defending champion Zach Johnson, also tied for the lead, took double bogey on the par-5 fifth hole and didn’t have much go his way in a 73 that put him six back.
Walker was happy with how he played, though he wanted more. After reaching 16 under with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 10th hole, he looked to be going for a knockout punch. But he left an 18-foot birdie putt woefully short on the 11th hole, came out of a 15-foot birdie putt on the 12th hole and left another birdie putt from about 18 feet short on the next hole.
And while he made a par on the reachable par-4 14th, he was lucky.
Walker hit driver with a slightly helping wind, and came out of the shot. It sailed to the right toward the native grasses, which in years past have been 4 feet high and even now have been cut back to a foot. Returning the club to the bag, Walker had both hands near the neck of the club like he wanted to strangle it.
The good news? They found it. With thick strands of grass around the ball, he was happy to get out short of the green, and then caught another break when it was sitting up in the Bermuda grass. That allowed him to control his chip, and he played perfectly to a foot to escape with par.
He liked the chances at birdies, though he didn’t make any until the end. Even after only two birdies on the back nine, he was tied for the lead and feeling a lot more comfortable about it than before he began winning tournaments.