KAPALUA, MAUI » If you’re trying to predict who will win this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii, look among the 23 golfers who are coming over from the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
Since the winners-only event moved to Maui in 1999, eight of the 12 Sony Open champions played the week before in this elite field. Most of the players say having a week under their belts gives them a distinct advantage over those playing for the first time this season.
The only four golfers to win the Sony who did not open their season on Maui are Paul Azinger in 2000, Jerry Kelly (2002), Paul Goydos (2007) and defending champion Ryan Palmer, who played here for the first time. Palmer shot a 3-under 70 yesterday and finished tied for 15th at 12-under 280.
The seven Sony winners who did open their week on Maui were Jeff Sluman in 1999, Brad Faxon (2001), Ernie Els (2003 and 2004), Vijay Singh (2005), David Toms (2006), K.J. Choi (2008) and Zach Johnson (2009).
ATTENDANCE UP ON MAUI
This is the first PGA Tour event to offer free admission and, not surprisingly, attendance was way up.
The biggest difference came Wednesday, when 2,246 showed for the pro-am and FedEx Cup Kick-off festivities. That was more than three times as many as last year.
Attendance nearly doubled Thursday, from 1,299 to 2,394, and Friday it rose from 1,534 last year to 2,416 this year. The third round was up about 800 from last year. There were no final totals yesterday, but 1,300 had arrived more than an hour before the first tee time. Last year, 2,425 watched the final round.
The numbers are all relative. Tiger Woods’ last appearance at Kapalua was 2005, and nearly 28,000 showed up during tournament week. Attendance has not hit 20,000 since.
Jonathan Byrd‘s win yesterday was the first by an American since Jim Furyk turned the trick in 2001. Since then, the foreign-born golfers had ruled.
There are a lot of theories as to why that is; one being the Australians do so well here because they are playing Down Under during the Americans’ offseason. Fortunately for Byrd, Irish lad Graeme McDowell came up one shot short of joining the champion and second-place finisher Robert Garrigus in a playoff. Had he sunk that birdie putt at the last, the foreign streak could have continued.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Thanks to the Kona winds, the hardest hole yesterday was No. 1 with a scoring average of 4.25. There were three birdies — one by Byrd — 21 pars, five bogeys and three double bogeys. The easiest hole was the par-5 fifth with a scoring average of 4.281. There was one eagle by Justin Rose, 21 birdies and 10 pars.
For the week, the par-5 fifth was the easiest hole with a scoring average of 4.313. The hardest hole for the week was No. 1 at 4.172. The long par 4 played directly into the wind over the weekend when normally it’s downwind if the trades are blowing.
SONY OPEN UNDER WAY
Sony Open in Hawaii week starts today, with the PGA Tour’s first full-field event of the year officially teeing off Thursday at Waialae Country Club.
The debut of Drive Fore the Green, a long-drive contest, is this morning at 9:30 a.m. Pros including Davis Love III and John Daly are scheduled. The fifth annual King Auto Group Pro-Junior Skills Challenge is tomorrow at 2:45 p.m. on the 18th hole.
Jerry Kelly, Steve Stricker, Ricky Barnes, Fred Funk, Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar are the pros in the Challenge. The juniors are Ryan Kuroiwa, Allisen Corpuz, Scotty Yamashita, Cyd Okino, Alex Chiarella and Japan’s Koto "Little Tiger" Kagasaki.
Admission today and tomorrow is free.
Last year Palmer won his third tour title at Sony. He birdied the 72nd hole to beat Australian Robert Allenby by a shot. Both are back this year, along with Choi, Els, Goydos, Kelly, Johnson, Singh, Furyk and Paul Stankowski.
The senior golfers invade Hawaii next week. The Champions opens its season with the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai, Jan. 21-23. Tom Watson will defend and is one of seven World Golf Hall of Famers in the 42-man field.
The following weekend (Jan. 29-30) on Maui, Watson and teammate Jack Nicklaus will defend their title in the 24th Kaanapali Champions Skins Game. The other teams are 2009 champs Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller, Fred Couples and Nick Price, and Bernhard Langer and Mark O’Meara. Admission is free.