KAUPULEHU-KONA, Hawaii (AP) — Brad Bryant doesn’t exactly have a plan for attacking Hualalai, the easiest course on tour.
“There is no strategy here,” he said. “You go out and you try to birdie one, so you’re not one down. You try to birdie two, so you’re not two down. It’s the same thing every day.”
Bryant and Bernhard Langer each had nine birdies and a bogey on their way to an 8-under 64 and shared the lead heading into Saturday’s second round of the Champions Tour’s season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship.
It was, Bryant said, a “birdiefest.”
“Unless the wind starts blowing real hard, it’s more about making putts and continuing to be aggressive on the greens, especially with your short-iron shots,” Bryant said. “That’s what this golf course is all about.”
In the previous 25 tournaments, the player who as led or tied for the lead after Saturday has won 16 times.
Hale Irwin, who turns 64 in June and is trying to become the oldest winner in the tour’s 30-year history, opened with a 65 to match Jeff Sluman and Jay Haas.
R.W. Eaks, who carded a rare double eagle, was at 66, along with Tom Kite. They were a stroke ahead of Jerry Pate and Andy Bean.
Langer, the tour’s player and rookie of the year, was 1 over through six holes, then birdied nine of his last 12 holes in the first round. He carded a 29 on the back nine.
“I just got into the groove,” he said.
After hitting out of the greenside bunker and sinking a 12-foot putt to save par on the par-4 sixth, Langer turned to his caddie and said, “We’ve got to stop the bleeding.”
“At that point on, they all went in,” Langer said.
The two-time Masters champion is coming off a three-win season when he was the lone player to break $2 million in earnings.
Bryant is coming off his first winless season in three season, but broke the $1 million mark for the third straight season with seven top-10 finishes.
After birdieing four of six holes to make the turn at 32, Bryant birdied three of four holes to start the back side. He took the outright lead by holing a curling 21-foot left-to-right putt on the par-4 16th.
Langer, playing in the last group with Haas, hit a wedge from 110 yards to set up an 8-foot birdie on 18 to tie Bryant.
Conditions were ideal at the scenic layout, which features forgiving fairways and immaculate greens. With only a gentle wind, the players attacked the pins.
Only three players shot over par at Hualalai, the tour’s easiest layout in the last six years with an average score below 70.
And no one looked more comfortable and at home than Irwin.
Irwin has won nine official events in Hawaii, including the PGA Tour’s 1981 Hawaiian Open and twice at Hualalai, where he is making his 14th straight appearance. The 45-time Champions Tour winner won here in 2007 and 1997.
Irwin said the round was important to put a disappointing year behind him where he failed to finish in the top-10 for the first time in his illustrious career.
“I was trying to … let it happen rather than force it to happen and I think we accomplished a good bit,” he said.
Besides working on the fundamentals, Irwin had a caddie change this year. His son Steve was on the bag after his caddie of eight years, Kenny Harms, left to work for Kevin Na on the regular tour.
Eaks turned in the shot of the day with a double eagle on the 551-yard seventh. After blasting a drive and catching a solid roll on the downhill fairway, Eaks holed his second shot using a 5-wood from 246 yards.
The albatross moved him to 5 under through seven holes. There were only two double eagles last year, compared to eight aces.
The 73-year-old Gary Player eagled the par-5 seventh and shot a 70. It was the fourth time in this event that the South African star has beaten his age.
The defenseless Hualalai was a welcome start to the season for everyone except Pete Oakley, who shot himself out of the tournament after just two holes by carding a disastrous 9 on the par-4 second where he got in trouble in the dried lava.
Oakley was having such a difficult time on the hole, Irwin and Player played through. The Irwin-Player paring represented the most senior group of the event, with “a combined 136 years between us,” Irwin noted.
“It’s almost like going full circle now, we’re starting to go through groups again like in the old days,” Irwin said.