HONOLULU (AP) — David Toms has been reacquainted with an old friend.
He showed up at the Sony Open with that familiar red-and-white golf bag of Cleveland Golf. Toms likes to say that 11 of his 12 victories came with the club company, including his PGA Championship, three Ryder Cup teams and a World Golf Championship.
But he also knows that what’s in his head is just as important as what’s in his hands.
“Absolutely, it’s wanting to do better,” Toms said. “And it’s putting the time into doing better. That doesn’t mean more time, just more focus when I take time. It’s easy to get away from that when you’re not playing well. My goal this year is to make it count.”
All that counts is who won, and that would be Zach Johnson.
The former Masters champion went through a dry patch similar to Toms for most of last year until he took a six-week break to evaluate his game and chart his course, then won the Valero Texas Open and Sony Open in a span of six starts.
What was fascinating about the leaderboard at Waialae, however, was the next three players behind him: Toms, Adam Scott and Charles Howell III.
All of them took a big step toward rebounding from a dismal year by their own standards.
Toms tied for second with Scott, who recorded his first top 10 on the PGA Tour since he tied for eighth at the Wachovia Championship last May. Scott prides himself on consistency, but he was consistently MIA the latter part of last year.
He split up with his longtime girlfriend and continued to play, often looking as though he was on autopilot. He had only one top 10 worldwide the final eight months of the year, missing the last month with a recurring knee cap injury.
“It’s important for me to play well in these first three weeks to get my mind back to where I like it to be,” said Scott, who is defending his title this week in the Qatar Masters. “I’m really motivated, and I feel like the drive is back. It had certainly gone a little off-track there at the end of last year, so I’m feeling good about things.”
Howell turns 30 this summer, but he already is overlooked when the conversation turns to the surge in young players.
Even though he has won twice, has 10 runner-up finishes and has played on the Presidents Cup team twice, Howell is coming off the worst season of his career. He was 69th on the money – certainly no reason to panic – but the better barometer of his season is that he plunged to No. 137 in the world before his fourth-place finish in the Sony Open.
There are noticeable changes this year.
Howell has added about 20 pounds to what always was a rail-thin frame, and his hair is slightly longer. He looks older, his eyes reflecting experience of someone who has been toiling on the PGA Tour longer than anyone under 30. The Sony Open was his 249th start.
He left swing coach David Leadbetter for the second time, switching to Sea Island-based Todd Anderson and is trying to get away from his obsession with mechanics that led to a singular style of play.
“I felt like a pitcher who only had one pitch,” he said. “Now I’m trying to learn three or four pitches.”
Despite his failure to birdie the par-5 18th, his back nine Sunday was an attention-grabber the way he gave himself birdie opportunities and holed enough putts (and one chip-in) to at least give himself a chance.
“I haven’t played a tournament in two months,” Howell said. “For the first week, I’m pretty happy.”
Beyond winning, the immediate goal for Howell – who grew up in Augusta, Ga. – is to get into the Masters. He has not missed it since 2001, qualifying in 2007 with a strong West Coast swing that began with a runner-up finish at Waialae.
Toms isn’t eligible for the Masters for the first time since 1997, and that bugs him.
“Every time I see those previews for the Masters, it drives me crazy,” he said. “I’m working toward that.”
It’s not just Augusta. He also isn’t eligible for the Accenture Match Play Championship, which he won four years ago, or even The Players Championship because he finished out of the top 125 on the money list last year.
He wound up at No. 131. Toms probably could have played more in the Fall Series, but some of those events fell on the same week as LSU football games that he didn’t want to miss, and he doesn’t apologize for that. He recently bought a house in Baton Rouge.
“Just one of my hobbies,” Toms said. “If someone had a different hobby, that might interrupt their golf schedule. It’s always been that way for me, and it always will be, as long it makes sense. Missing the FedEx Cup is one thing. But in the fall, when I get to spend time with friends and family, that’s what I’m going to do.”
He did just that last summer, the highlight of an otherwise forgettable season. Toms took six weeks off during the summer, even skipping the British Open, to restore his health and spend time with his wife and two children at their Louisiana lake house.
He didn’t record his first top 10 until September and ended the year at No. 116 in the world ranking.
The runner-up finish at the Sony Open bumped him up to No. 76. Equally important as the result was the ease with which he played. Toms found himself pressing last year in the few opportunities he had. He looked like the old Toms at Waialae, constantly applying pressure without seemingly breaking a sweat.
That’s how he used to be. And that’s how he wants to be again.