Joaquin Niemann introduces himself to Kapalua’s renovated Plantation Course with a 66
With the weekend weather forecast calling for much more wind than blew in Thursday’s opening round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions, it was important for the 34 golfers teeing it up at the newly renovated Plantation Course to go low.
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KAPALUA, Maui >> With the weekend weather forecast calling for much more wind than blew in Thursday’s opening round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions, it was important for the 34 golfers teeing it up at the newly renovated Plantation Course to go low.
Apparently, a lot of them watch the Weather Channel.
Despite an extensive face lift to the famed Maui course, there were nine rounds in the 60s compared to 11 last year, when Xander Shauffele came from off the pace with a closing 62 to beat Gary Woodland by one. Not too many golfers in these parts see anybody going that low on these hard, fast greens and soft, slow fairways, particularly if the wind starts howling in West Maui as it often does this time of year.
Opening-round leader Joaquin Niemann is making his first tour of duty here. He has heard all about the changes that have taken place on all 18 holes in one way or another over the last nine months, but like his fellow 15 first-timers in this winners-only field, he doesn’t know what he’s missing.
Instead, he went off the first tee with the knowledge that the weather was going to change for the worse, so it’s best to gather those birdies and eagles while you may, in order to still be at or near the top of the leaderboard come Sunday. Not a bad thought for a 21-year-old from Chile who became the first person from that country to win a PGA Tour event last September at Greenbriar, the opening tournament of the wrap-around season.
He’d like nothing better than for win No. 2 to come here, and he got off to an excellent start with a bogey-free 7-under 66 to find himself one shot ahead of 2017 TOC champ Justin Thomas (67) and two shots clear of Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar, who will defend his Sony Open in Hawaii title next week on Oahu.
“This first day was really important to get a good score,” Niemann said. “Because I know it’s going to be windy and it’s going to get really hard the next three days. I played a couple of holes on Tuesday and it was really windy. And I was like, oh my God, this is going to be really tough. You just have to stick to your plan, stay patient, you’re going to hit a lot of bad shots with that wind. But yeah, just stay there, enjoy the run and enjoy the view. It’s pretty cool.”
Kuchar is all too familiar with the views around here. He and his family take extended vacations to the 50th State whenever time allows. In fact, they went straight from Australia and the Presidents Cup to spend two weeks on the Big Island before coming over here to get ready.
And unlike the first-timers, he knows what the course is like now and what it was before the alterations took place. To him, course designers Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore just freshened up the place.
“It’s still Kapalua, still the Plantation Course,” Kuchar said. “Listen, it’s in better shape. The greens are beautiful. The whole course is in great shape. It’s the same. It’s the Plantation Course. It’s just in better shape now and fun to play.”
Thomas and Fowler couldn’t agree more. They tried to keep the past in the past and enjoy the course for what it offers now, even if soft fairways and hard greens are the opposite of what you want in a championship layout. This talented twosome couldn’t catch Niemann, but they are close enough to maybe make some noise over the next three days.
“There’s a few differences, but for the most part, lines are all the same,” Fowler said. “It’s still fairly similar around the golf course, but you’ve just got to pay attention to a couple of little changes.”
For Thomas, it’s more about the wind than the course. He said even an 8-to-10-mph wind like Thursday affects the putts. If it blows even harder over the next three days as predicted, putting on firm, fast greens could prove problematic.
“Any time I ever watch golf it frustrates me how it’s never talked about — the wind and putts,” Thomas said. “When it blows 25 to 35, you’ll have putts that are supposed to break a foot right to left and they’ll go the other way. There’s no putt that’s a gimme when it’s like that. You could hit a putt from this far (holds his hands apart) and it’s dead straight, but if the wind picks up you’re going to miss it.
“Like I said, it drives me nuts when I watch golf and they’re like, ‘I can’t believe they misread that.’ It’s like, it’s blowing 25, it’s not even close to that. But everyone has to play with it, so I’m just going to have to be patient and hopefully just kind of time it all right.”