KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Geoff Ogilvy can’t think of a better place to begin the year than Kapalua.
For starters, it requires a PGA Tour victory the previous season to secure a tee time at the Mercedes-Benz Championship. Once on the Plantation course, anyone with rust in his game is greeted with fairways roughly 80 yards wide on some holes.
Even so, the mountainous course on the rugged coast of Maui can be so severe with the wind, elevation and greens that Ogilvy refers to it as “extreme” golf, certainly something players don’t see the rest of the year.
So how did he cope in the opening round Thursday?
“I didn’t do anything amazing, but I didn’t do anything badly,” he said. “I just played nice.”
Talk about the perfect start.
In his two previous trips to Kapalua, Ogilvy had an average score of 73.875 and never broke 72. But after playing bogey-free golf and putting for birdie on every hole but the last one, the former U.S. Open champion had a 6-under 67 for a one-shot lead over Ernie Els, Kenny Perry and Johnson Wagner, one of a dozen newcomers in the 33-man field.
“This is a fun course to play,” Ogilvy said. “But every week, it would wear you out, because it’s extreme. It’s so different from everything else we play. After Florida, you probably play the same golf course 20 times in a row. But to play such an extremely different setup, it’s a cool place to start.”
Els knows the feeling, having won at Kapalua in 2003 with a score of 31-under par, a tournament record he doubts will be broken soon. Having played only once in the last six weeks, the Big Easy was feeling refreshed and energized, and it showed. He hit a 4-iron into 12 feet for eagle on the fifth hole, made the turn in 31 and was 6 under through 11 holes.
But he was 1 over the rest of the way and failed to take advantage of the par 5s on the back nine.
“I would have taken it before I teed off,” Els said of his 68. “But I’m a little hot under the collar right now.”
Most of that was from hooking his tee shot into the native weeds on the par-5 15th, having to take a penalty shot and hit out sideway, relieved to only make bogey. And some of that was from missing birdie putts inside 10 feet on the last two holes.
He could have used a finish like Wagner.
The Shell Houston Open winner wasn’t even in the picture until he made a 10-foot birdie down the hill on the 16th, made a 25-foot birdie across the grain on the 17th, then made an 18-foot eagle on the last hole for his 68.
“It was a great finish, and turned a 71 into 68 real quick,” Johnson said.
Perry played with Els and thought he was being left behind until realizing a steady round kept him in the game.
Davis Love III, who won the final 2008 tour event at Disney to qualify for one of his favorite tournaments, slowed on the back nine but still managed a 69 to join a group that included Sean O’Hair, Pebble Beach winner Steve Lowery and Ryuji Imada, who showed how quickly fortunes can turn on the Plantation course.
Imada was toward the bottom of the pack early in the round until he ran off seven straight birdies, one shot off the PGA Tour record. He had a chance to tie until missing on the 13th, then followed that with another streak – two straight bogeys – and wound up with a 69.
FedEx Cup champion Vijay Singh, who will have knee surgery next week that will keep him out for about a month, opened with a double bogey and had to rally for a 73. Also making a late charge was defending champion Daniel Chopra, but all that allowed him to do was break 80 with birdies on the last two holes.
And so the PGA Tour season began, with some players looking as though last year never ended, others looking as though they weren’t quite ready for it to start.
Count Ogilvy among those who didn’t lose his stride.
His lone PGA Tour victory last year came at Doral in a World Golf Championship, but he went home to Australia and cashed in with his first victory on home soil at the Australian PGA Championship. A week later, he tied for sixth in the Australian Open.
“We only finished Australian Open three week ago,” Ogilvy said. “And three weeks isn’t enough to get rusty. Two months is. I played really well in Australia up to three weeks ago, and kept playing through the time off I had.”
So no one should be terribly shocked to see him atop the leaderboard. The only surprise was the location.
“It’s not amazingly surprising I’m playing well now,” Ogilvy said. “I haven’t shot very many good rounds around this course, so maybe that’s the surprising thing.”