Planet Golf — 14 January 2022 by GW staff and news services
Henley takes three-shot Sony lead

HONOLULU — Russell Henley set a strong target Friday in the Sony Open in Hawaii when he was 6 under over his final six holes and closed with a 30-foot eagle putt for a 7-under 63 and a three-shot lead among the early starters at Waialae.

So much of the morning was up for grabs after 18-hole leader Kevin Na began to fade, with as many as five players having at least a share of the lead.

Henley made the turn by holing a greenside bunker shot for eagle on the par-5 18th hole, only to miss the green long and into a back bunker for bogey on the toughest first hole.

And then he couldn’t miss. He birdied both par 3s on the front nine from inside 10 feet, holed a pair of 12-foot birdie putts and finished with his eagle.

That put him at 15-under 125, three shots ahead of Haotong Li (65), and four clear of Matt Kuchar, who has been in Hawaii since four days before Christmas and sounds like he is in no hurry to leave.

Waialae is where it all started for Henley. He began his rookie season in 2013 at the Sony Open by setting a 36-hole record at the time at 126 and outlasting Scott Langley in a weekend duel to win. Henley previously had won on the Korn Ferry Tour when he was still at Georgia.

Easy game, right?

“Didn’t take me very long to realize it’s really hard,” Henley said, who has three career victories as he starts his 10th year on TOUR. “Had a lot of up-and-downs my first year, second year, I mean, every year. After this first one, I remember thinking it might be easier than I thought.”

He laughed before adding, “But it’s not.”

It felt easy at times on another gorgeous day along the Pacific, with minimal wind and an abundance of tropical warmth, and pure greens. The flat stick can be his best club in the bag, and Henley was just as deft with the 6-foot putts as some of his birdies.

Li has had a few big moments in his career, most notably at Harding Park in 2020 when he became the first player from China to hold the lead after any round in a major. He was two ahead in that PGA Championship until fading on the weekend.

He also was at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne at the end of 2019, though that didn’t go so well, starting in the practice round when his fill-in caddie got lost and decided to head into the clubhouse for coffee as Li played on out of another player’s bag. He lost both his matches.

Ditching contact lenses for designer glasses, he was steady in his round of 65, leaving him in contention for the weekend while playing on a sponsor exemption.

Another exemption was equally impressive, if not more. Keita Nakajima, the No. 1 amateur in the world, had an early bogey that left him around the cut line. He answered with a 6-iron to 12 feet for birdie on the par-3 17th, and he shot 30 on the back nine for a 64.

Nakajima was in the large group six shots behind Henley, a group that included Stewart Cink (63), Seamus Power of Ireland (68) and Chris Kirk (65).

Na opened with a 61 and was 10 shots worst the next day. He didn’t make a birdie until his ninth hole and kept burning the edges on putts. On Thursday, some of those putts he narrowly missed were for birdie in his bid for a sub-60 round. On Friday, they were for par, and it sent him from a one-shot lead after the opening round to seven shots behind Henley.

Cameron Smith, who won at Kapalua at 34-under par, had a 71 and was headed toward a missed cut.

Kuchar has been over on the Big Island since Dec. 21, and he plans to take the next two weeks off before heading over to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Even though he has missed the cut the last two years at Waialae, this is a tournament he doesn’t like to miss. Plus, he won the Sony Open three years ago.

He birdied five of his last 10 holes.

“Love the golf course. Love the environment,” Kuchar said. “You throw in the state of Hawaii, as well. For me it’s a paradise and always excited to come here.”

FIRST ROUND

HONOLULU — More than a quarter-century after Jim Furyk first won the Sony Open, he returned with more than a PGA Tour Champions tune-up in mind.

On a course he can handle, Furyk made a hole-on-one on the 17th hole to cap off a big run late in his opening round Thursday for an 8-under 62, giving him a one-shot lead among early starters at Waialae Country Club.

Kevin Chappell, down to his last five tournaments on a medical exemption stemming from back surgery, past Sony Open winner Patton Kizzire and Michael Thompson were at 63.

Furyk went a decade without playing the Sony Open until returning last year once he became eligible for the 50-and-older PGA Tour Champions, which opens next week on the Big Island.

“Trying to get ready for this year and what do I look at this week? I want to be competitive,” Furyk said. “I want to compete and put myself in position, in the hunt, and also want to get a feel for where my game is and what I want to work on for the year.”

Furyk, 51, won so long ago at Waialae that it was a year before Collin Morikawa was even born. The tournament had a different title sponsor in 1996, and the perks of winning ($216,000 for first place, compared with $1.35 million this year) included a United Airlines pass for two to travel anywhere in the world for a year.

There were other reminders for Furyk.

“Played a practice round with a guy that called me ‘sir,’ and later on he asked me what I liked most about the Champions Tour,” Furyk said. “And I said, ‘No one calls me ’sir.’ He said his dad would be angry with him if he didn’t.”

On the course, not much changed. Waialae is on the short list of PGA Tour courses that doesn’t favor all-out power, and even after heavy rain a week ago, there’s enough bounce and roll on shots in the fairway to make it feel even shorter.

Furyk opened with a long three-putt bogey, which did not project to what kind of day he had on the greens. He made a pair of 30-foot birdie putts early, and then finished strong with birdie putts from 12, 15 and 25 feet starting on the 14th hole, and then a 6-iron for an ace at No. 17.

Cameron Smith, who won last week at Kapalua with a record score to par at 34 under, was among those playing in the afternoon as he tries to join Justin Thomas (2017) and Ernie Els (2003) as the only player to sweep the Hawaii swing.

Furyk won both tournaments, just not the same year.

The start was a big one for Chappell, whose career has been start-and-stop since surgery on his back after the 2018 season. He also realized it was time to take care of more than his body.

“I definitely had some lingering stuff going last year coming from my back throughout the year, and kind of end of the year I decided I wasn’t good physically, I wasn’t good mentally and I needed to take some time,” Chappell said. “And so I did. The tour has been phenomenal with that supporting me. Really dove into the mental side and believe it or not, the better I got mentally, the better my back got.

“It’s been a lot of hard work but it’s been great.”

Forty-nine of the 72 players from the morning wave shot in the 60s, not unusual for this tournament. The conditions were slightly tougher than last week, though Waialae has little in common with Kapalua except for views of the blue Pacific.

The rough is slightly higher and feels even thicker with lingering moisture.

Ryan Palmer opened with a 64, while Billy Horschel led the large group at 65. Brandt Snedeker, coming off a tragic year of losing both parents, and former No. 1 amateur Takumi Kanaya were among those at 66.

Furyk played only six times on the PGA Tour last year, all on courses that don’t require big length. He missed the cut in the last three events he played. For the first tournament of the year, he was pleased with his thinking and had zero complaints about his putting.

Statistically, he made 156 feet worth of putts, and that was on 17 greens. He didn’t need a putter on the 17th hole, where his 6-iron that he caught a hair thin still had enough carry to hold its line and drop into the cup.

Furyk said it was his 11th ace on tour. He couldn’t remember the last one, perhaps a product of having been out here a long time.

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