KAPALUA, Hawaii — Making up for lost time, the PGA Tour finally kicked off its 2013 season with a 36-hole lollapalooza on a windy, wild day in paradise. The conditions were just playable enough to produce some good scoring, with the 30-man field aided by shaggier greens and a benevolent setup that shaved off more than 400 yards from the Plantation Course. They also played lift, clean and place on the rain-softened fairways.
(Related Photos: Players battle windy Kapalua)
Dustin Johnson — whose low, piercing ball flight makes him probably the longest hitter in the world into the wind — followed a four-under-par 69 in the morning with an afternoon 66 to take a three-stroke lead over Steve Stricker (71-67). Bubba Watson (70-69) is four back, followed by Keegan Bradely (71-69) and Brandt Snedeker (70-70). With this Hyundai Tournament of Champions having been shortened to three rounds, the winner will be determined on Tuesday with one final 18-hole shootout. "We waited and waited and now it's a sprint to the finish," Bradley said.
At the end of a dawn-to-dusk day of golf players and caddies were left shaking their heads at the wackiness they had partaken in. The vast canvas of the Plantation Course already encourages artistic expression, and in winds that gusted to 40 mph the golf became a test of geometry and imagination.
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"I've been hitting 8-irons from 100 yards," Bradley said. "I hit a 9-iron from 185. I hit a 7-iron today from 236, and I also hit a 7 from 130. You've got to really feel it. You can't just go by numbers." Balls oscillated on the greens and players backed off shots to wait out gusts, but, today at least, the show had to go on. After all this tournament has been through, "We just want to play golf," said Ian Poulter. "We're just trying to get done and get out of here. In a respectful way."
The Plantation Course is basically built on the side of a mountain and is considered the toughest walk on Tour. Carts were provided at strategic points to ferry the players and caddies around but it was still an exceptionally taxing day. The caddies put on a brave face, as is their wont. "Why would I be hurting?" asked Lance Bennett, Matt Kuchar's bagman. "I'm in peak physical condition. I'm an athlete." The golfers were more open about the demands of the day. Many changed socks between rounds to help their tender tootsies. At day's end there was much strategizing about how to recover and be ready for the final round, which begins at 7:15 a.m. local time. "I'm going to have a hot bath," said Poulter. "Then I will sit in a bath of ice. Then I'll have a massage and go to sleep and dream about walking off 18."
Johnson, 28, has dreams of his own. The game's most awesome physical talent has won six PGA Tour events, but he knows he's capable of much, much more, and this tournament represents a golden opportunity. "I'm due for a big year," Johnson says. "I haven't achieved everything I can. I haven't played to my full potential yet. Maybe it will happen this year."
If the laid-back Johnson looked strangely comfortable on the Plantation Course it comes from the extra time he's spent here. Needing to break in new irons and a new driver, Johnson arrived early and played six practice rounds. (That also allowed him to spend some quality time with his new squeeze Paulina Gretzky.) On Monday, Johnson hit 33 of 36 greens in regulation. "These greens are big, but still," he woofed. Johnson is one of golf's preeminent feel players and he's thriving on the challenges presented on this windswept corner of Maui. "This course sets up well for me — I hit driver on every hole," he said. "It's fun hitting shots into these greens. You gotta hit it high, hit it low, hook it, fade it. I love it."
And having survived what might be the toughest day on Tour all year, the final round should be, well, a breeze.