Planet Golf — 15 January 2021 by GW staff and news services
Na’s final-putt birdie wins Sony Open

HONOLULU —The spoils at the Sony Open belonged to Kevin Na, a winner for the fourth straight season after coming from three shots behind with six holes to play for a one-shot victory with a birdie on the final hole.

The consolation prize belonged to Chris Kirk, and it felt like a win.

Kirk stepped away in May 2019 because of alcoholism and depression, a decision he feels saved himself, his family and his career. He was playing the final event of a medical extension the PGA Tour awarded him for lost time, and he delivered a 65 to finish one shot behind.

The birdie on the final hole gave him enough points to regain full status.

“It totally changes everything being able to be back to picking my schedule like I’m used to over the last number of years,” Kirk said. “To go into a week and say I’ve got to finish top three to keep going and do is silly. I’m thankful God put me in a great situation, and you never know what’s going to happen.”

Na could have felt similarly.

The Sony Open is typically so crowded at the top that no one is safe and no one is ever out of it. Na only looked to be out of it when he missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the 11th and then three-putted for bogey from 40 feet on the 12th to fall three shots behind Brendan Steele.

He answered with three straight birdies, Steele faltered at Waialae for the second straight year, and Na delivered the winning shot with a 5-wood from the rough that went just over the back of the green on the par-5 18th, leaving him a simple up-and-down for birdie and a a 5-under 65.

“I was playing maybe a little bit more aggressive coming down the stretch, not worrying so much about second or third, more focused on just that — winning,” Na said. “Every year, I hope to win and I expect to win on the right golf courses.”

Kirk and Joaquin Niemann (66) finished one shot behind, and it only felt good to one of them. Niemann was runner-up for the second straight week in Hawaii. He finished the two Hawaii events at 45-under par without a trophy to show for it.

“Just another good week, so happy for that,” Niemann said. He leaves Hawaii with $1,369,400 in earnings.

Na collected his fifth career victory on the PGA Tour. Na, who turned pro out of high school, didn’t win until his eighth season. It was seven more seasons until he won again. Now he’s up to four seasons in a row.

“I think experience is the reason why I’ve been winning,” he said. “When you do it again, you know it seems like the next one comes easier. … I think more about winning since I’ve been winning more often.”

It was hard to think that way when he was running out of time. From the rough left of the 13th, he hit his approach into just under 15 feet for the first of three straight birdies.

As for Brendan Steele, it was another year of disappointment in paradise, this one more of a slow leak. Steele last year had a two-shot lead with two to play and wound up losing in a playoff. This time, he made an 18-foot eagle putt on the ninth hole to take a three-shot lead into the back nine.

He hit driver on the 355-yard 10th and didn’t quite clear a bunker, leaving an awkward lie. He put his wedge on the front of the green some 80 feet away and three-putted. His game was so tentative the rest of the way that he didn’t have a birdie chance inside 30 feet until the 17th hole. That was from 10 feet to tie for the lead, and he missed that.

Steele also failed to birdie the 18th and closed with a 69.

“Totally changed the momentum,” Steele said about his bogey on the 10th. “Every single shot I hit after that ended up with a weird lie. … I think you just have to really take some positives out of this. Hard to see for me right now.”

Webb Simpson matched the low score of the final round with a 64 and tied for fourth along with Steele and Marc Leishman, shot shot 30 on the back nine.

Na finished at 21-under 259 and is assured of returning to Hawaii for two weeks next year, starting with the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua. That course can be too big for him. Waialae proved to be a perfect fit.

Third Round
HONOLULU — Brendan Steele had the lowest score of his PGA TOUR career with a 9-under 61, giving him a two-shot lead and another chance to win the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Steele has reason to still be smarting from last year. He had the tournament all but won until a series of errors over the last three holes he played to lose in a playoff to Cameron Smith.

And if Saturday was any indication, even a two-shot lead isn’t safe.

Overnight rain at Waialae Country Club, coupled with the tropical wind not even strong enough to make palm trees sway, left the course as vulnerable as it has ever been.

Steele didn’t even have the low score to himself. Kevin Na also had a 61 and was two shots behind, along with Kapalua runner-up Joaquin Niemann. Na had it going so well he thought about a 59 when he stood over a 10-foot birdie putt on the 17th, knowing that would leave him an eagle away from golf’s magic number. On this day, he had to settle for a 61.

Niemann squinted his eyes into the setting sun as his approach on the par-5 bounced up to 10 feet for a birdie-eagle finish and a 63. In two holes, he went from outside the top 10 to the final group on Sunday.

Steele was at 18-under 192.

Stewart Cink birdied his final hole for a 65 and was three shots behind, along with Charley Hoffman (64), Peter Malnati (64), Chris Kirk (65) and Russell Henley (65).

Starting times have been moved up by two hours Sunday with hopes of finishing ahead of heavy rain in the forecast.

Steele had a two-shot lead with two holes to play a year ago when he missed a 6-foot par putt on the 17th hole, hit a wild hook on his approach to the easy par-5 18th and had to settle for par, and then missed the 10th green with an 80-yard shot in the playoff. It was a final hour when everything went wrong.

On this blissful day, everything went right.

And he wasn’t alone.

Keith Mitchell, who had a 62 on Friday, took the lead at one point in the third round and was 8 under through 15 holes on his round when his tee shot landed near a cement wall of a house and cost him a penalty drop. A mediocre finish gave Mitchell a 63, which felt even higher being in the same group as Na.

There were 10 scores of 64 or better. The average score for the third round was 66.7.

Nick Taylor, who took a two-shot lead into the third round, was keeping pace until a pair of bogeys on the back nine. He shot a 68 and was still only four shots back.

Such is the nature of this tournament in this kind of weather. It was wide open on Saturday, and it’s not likely to be any different in the final round.


HONOLULU — Nick Taylor pitched in for eagle to get his round headed in the right direction, and he kept going until he finished with a good break and one last birdie for an 8-under 62 and a two-shot lead Friday in the Sony Open.

It’s still as crowded as the H-1 at the top, typical of this tournament.

Taylor gave himself at least some separation with a gap wedge to 6 feet for birdie on No. 8, and then even his worst swing of the day turned into a birdie on the par-5 ninth.

The Canadian hooked his tee shot toward the high netting of the driving range. The ball was so close to the knee-high boundary fence that his only hope was to play the shot left-handed. However, the netting that extends upward from the fence is considered a temporary immovable obstructure. Taylor was given a free drop.

He hit iron to about 50 yards short of the green leaving a good angle, and he clipped a wedge to 2 feet.

“It was a fortunate break,” Taylor said. “Easily could have probably gone under the fence, but to bounce off and get a drop was a break and it was nice to take advantage of it.”

Taylor, a University of Washington product who won at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am last year, was at 12-under 128.

Five players were two shots behind, a group that was decidedly Southern for the second leg of this Hawaii swing — Stewart Cink (63), Webb Simpson (65), Russell Henley (64), Vaughn Taylor (66) and Chris Kirk (65).

It doesn’t stop there. Fourteen players were separated by three shots going into the weekend.

Attribute that to an ideal day of a blue sky and only a light, tropical breeze on a dry course at Waialae. Taylor played in a group with Keith Mitchell, who also shot a 62. Their better-ball score was 55, with only four holes where neither of them made a birdie.

Mitchell also was right around the cut line. Birdies started dropping, and now he’s right in the mix.

Ditto for Harris English, who had at least a share of the lead after every round in his playoff victory last week at Kapalua. He opened with a 70 and was in danger of missing the cut. He shot 64 and was six back.

“I think it’s probably harder out here to make double (bogey) and there’s a lot of birdie opportunities,” Taylor said. “You can make four, five, six pars in a row and you’re probably getting lapped, especially with how the fairways are running.”

Taylor wasn’t even doing that. He was 1 over through 5 holes, slipping behind the cut line. But instead of worrying about the cut, he just kept playing and putting, along with that chip-in for eagle on the 18th.

Waialae has never looked so empty without fans, and Taylor wasn’t sure how to react except to eventually high-five his caddie. Sergio Garcia had a moment like that. He holed a flop shot from right of the sixth green and simply stood there. No one was sure where it went until a caddie reached into the cup and tossed the ball to him.

But it’s plenty crowded on the scoreboard, and the weekend figures to be as wild as ever.

Cink already won the season-opener in the Safeway Open in September, his first victory since the 2009 British Open at Turnberry. He and his wife, a cancer survivor, recovered from COVID-19. His 23-year-old took a leave from Delta Airlines to caddie for him. It doesn’t take much to make the 47-year-old smile.

And then he played golf beneath a gorgeous blue sky in a light, tropical breeze with gentle surf along the edge of Waialae.

“Today was a dream day for playing here at Waialae,” he said. “It was almost no wind. There was a little bit of moisture on the ground from last night, and it was a day where you could really dial it in. You could really hit your spots instead of having to do the usual, which is figure out how wind is going to help or hurt the ball.”

The group three shots behind included Kapalua runner-up Joaquin Niemann of Chile, Collin Morikawa and Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 28 on his second nine for a 65.

The weather was so good that Simpson was nervous. He was 1 under for his round in conditions where he felt the good scores would be in the 62 range. And then he made a 25-foot birdie putt on the par-3 fourth, closed with three straight birdies and felt a lot better.

“It’s one of those days where calm winds, you feel like you need to go shoot 7, 8, 9 under, and I was a couple under for a while there,” he said. “Really happy with my finish and I thought if I can get it to double digits, I would be at least close to the lead going into Saturday.”

First Round
HONOLULU — Joaquin Niemann had no regrets about the 18th hole at the Sony Open.

Four days after a pair of pars on the final hole at Kapalua led to a playoff loss, Niemann holed a 50-foot chip for eagle on the 18th hole Thursday for an 8-under 62 and a share of the lead with Jason Kokrak and Peter Malnati.

“It was a good way to finish,” Niemann said. “Spent a few days thinking about that last hole, but taking all the positives from the week and pull it out for this week.”

They weren’t easy days for Niemann. The 22-year-old from Chile is still too young to have experienced the inevitable losses that pile up in this sport. He played Sunday at Kapalua with Sergio Garcia, who has experienced plenty of failure, and who told him to think about what all went right.

So much did on a breezy afternoon at Waialae on a course with dry fairways and smooth greens and low scoring. Niemann’s only bogey was when he fell asleep on a 25-foot birdie putt above the hole at No. 12, ran it 10 feet by the hole and three-putted. The finish was exquisite.

Kokrak played bogey-free, and he was as pleased with a 15-foot par putt on No. 1 — his 10th hole of the round — than any of his nine birdies. He had a 25-foot eagle putt for 61 on his closing hole that narrowly missed.

Malnati was the only one at 62 who played in the morning, though conditions were similar for much of the day.

The group at 64 included Daniel Berger, among the 31 players in the Sentry Tournament of Champion last week on Maui, and Jim Herman, who should have been there.

Herman made it to Hawaii a week later than he had hoped and was happier than ever. He recovered from the coronavirus and had his lowest score in his 10th appearance at the Sony Open to get his year off to a good start.

He qualified for Kapalua the Sentry Tournament of Champions by winning the Wyndham Championship, his third career victory. But his COVID-19 test came back positive as he prepared to go to Maui, and self-isolation for 10 days left him no time to get to Kapalua.

“I feel pretty good,” Herman said. “Obviously, the low score today helps you feel a little bit better. Didn’t know what to expect coming out this week.”

Herman said he had a miserable four days dealing with the virus and still doesn’t have his full taste and smell back. The biggest concern was slight inflammation of the lungs, which pressed against his back and made it difficult to sit. He finally was able hit some golf balls last weekend and only played one round of golf.

Scoring was ideal for different reasons than Kapalua on a very different course. The wind off the Pacific shores on the edge of the course is normal. But it’s been dry enough for the ball to roll, helpful on tee shots in the fairway, not so much when it’s off line and head into the rough.

There was one other twist at Waialae — out-of-bounds stakes for about 350 yards down the left side of the 18th fairway. The tour erected them this year out of safety to those coming down the 10th fairway, and without the tents and bleachers because of no spectators, it might have been tempting for more players to take their tee shot on 18 down the 10th.

That never crossed Niemann’s mind. He hit a high draw that still tumbled through the fairway into the rough, came up just short and finished on a good note.

It sure was different from last week. Niemann missed a 6-foot birdie in regulation (and shot 64), and then in a playoff on the par-5 18th, he pulled it slightly and went down a slope left of the green, leaving a tough chip and a par. Harris English won with a birdie putt.

“It was the first time that it really hurt me, like finishing a golf tournament,” he said. “Probably one or two days I just keep thinking on how I couldn’t make birdie on 18 and get it done. I was talking with my coach, with my psychologist. We talked for an hour about the whole tournament, not for that 18th hole. It was a good way to take all the positives from that week.”

English, hopeful of being only the third player to sweep the Hawaii swing, had three bogeys in a four-hole stretch on his second nine and had to birdie two of the last three holes for an even-par 70.

Scoring was so low that only 30 players from the 144-man field were over par.

“They have it playing fantastic,” said Webb Simpson, one of 22 players at 65 or better. “I think all us golfers love it for the most part when we see a good drive and the ball bounce 10 feet in the air, it’s a good feeling.”

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