AP golf writer
POSTED: 3:21 p.m. HST, Jan 4, 2014
KAPALUA, Maui >> Two months later, not much has changed for Chris Kirk. At least on the golf course.
He was last seen in competition closing with a 66 at Sea Island to win the McGladrey Classic, which earned him a spot in the winners-only field at Kapalua. He opened the new year Friday by closing with five straight birdies for a 7-under 66 that gave him a four-way share of the lead at the Tournament of Champions with Webb Simpson, Jordan Spieth and Michael Thompson.
It wasn't as simple as the timeline might suggest.
His wife gave birth to their second son, Foster, two weeks ago. Kirk barely had time to touch a golf club, getting in three rounds of golf in the last two months and a few times going out to the practice facility at Sea Island. So when he rolled into Kapalua, he wasn't sure what to expect.
He played his first practice round on Tuesday with Matt Kuchar and Scott Brown. They played a skins game, and Kirk got shut out.
"Shot about 80," he said. "Felt very rusty when I got here."
Thankfully, the tournament didn't start until Friday. By the time his shots counted, Kirk felt his game coming around. Even then, it took a while. He played the last five holes as well as he could -- all birdies, the last two with some of his best shots into the wind -- and at least can think about winning two straight events.
Of course, there's a long way to go.
And the surprise -- at least for this opening event of the year on the PGA Tour -- is that there's a bunch of players right there with him.
The Hyundai Tournament of Champions might be the easiest tournament to win all year. There are only 30 players at Kapalua, and it's not unusual for most of them to spend this week shaking off the rust. The Plantation Course is unlike any other on tour, built on the side of a mountain, and there are 13 players here for the first time.
Either these guys are good -- really good -- or it's a product of a wraparound season in which some players were competing deep into the season. Along with the four-way tie at the top of the leaderboard, the top 10 players were separated by a mere three shots.
Add to that the wind, and it was a different kind of round.
"I think the more times you play it, the more advantage you have," Kirk said. "Today was a little bit funny. Today was a day with the wind ... I've never played in this wind. All the guys who have played here a bunch of times, you're very rarely going to see that wind. So that could throw some people off that were used to it."
Spieth fell in love with this place when he arrived.
"I was planning on playing nine holes and I almost just kept on going because it was such a cool layout," he said. "I really do enjoy all the sidehill lies, downhill lies. You really have to be a shot-maker out here."
He hit plenty of good shots on Friday. Spieth never came close to bogey and finished with a 12-foot birdie for a 66.
"It's a course that I shouldn't make a lot of bogeys on if you keep the ball in play and just think your way around the course," Spieth said. "Ultimately, I did some good preparation and did a lot of hard work the last two or three weeks getting ready for today, and now just happy to be in good position after the first round."
For the opening round of the year, where players are still trying to shake off some rust, the leaderboard has rarely been this tight.
PGA champion Jason Dufner had four birdies and an eagle on his front-nine 30, only to settle into a string of pars on the back nine for a 6-under 67. Kevin Streelman bogeyed his last two holes and also was at 67, along with Zach Johnson and Ryan Moore. The top 10 players were separated by three shots.
Adam Scott, coming off a two wins and a runner-up in Australia, and defending champion Dustin Johnson were among those at 70.
On a day like this, experience might have been overrated.
Even the players at Kapalua for the first time have watched enough of it on television to know how the ball reacts on the ground. That's why Thompson was so surprised to see that his tee shot on the 18th bounced back a few feet.
"From what I understand from guys that I've talked to, that ball at least rolls 40 yards," Thompson said. "So it's playing obviously very different."
It was a different day, indeed, even for the caddies.
Kip Henley, who works for Brian Gay, felt the bag was heavier than normal when he set it down on the fourth tee. Sure enough, the pocket holding the umbrella also had a full bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in there. Gay stashed there after the final PGA Tour event of 2013 six weeks ago in Mexico.
Gay handed it to his wife, who was in the gallery.