Brendan Steele arrived at Waialae Country Club this week having played all of two rounds on the course and none since missing the cut in the 2011 Sony Open in Hawaii.
Even when his three PGA Tour wins earned him trips to Maui for the winners-only Hyundai/SBS/Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, he skipped the Oahu stop to head back home to California.
But a tough 2019 season led him to add some different events to his schedule to rebuild his status and give Waialae another go after his extended absence.
That and the recommendation of a close friend.
“The only reason I haven’t been back is because I live in California, so it’s an easy drive to the first event, and I kind of just play everything in California,” Steele said. “So I was excited to come back and see what it was like. Good friends with Keegan Bradley who loves it here and always told me I should love it and play this. I guess he’s right.”
Steele probably wasn’t a big fan of the course after shooting 7 over par in his abbreviated visit in ’11, but has no doubt grown fonder over the past three days as he weathered less than welcoming conditions to open up a three-shot lead heading into today’s final round.
Tradewinds calmed down to “just” 15 to 25 mph Saturday from the gusts that pushed over 40 on Thursday and Friday.
Even so, overcast skies probably led much of Saturday’s crowd to head out before the heavy stuff rolled in, leaving a sparse gathering to watch Steele craft a birdie-birdie-birdie finish for the second straight day to close out a round of 6-under-par 64 and move to 12 under for the tournament.
Cameron Smith of Australia will join Steele in today’s 12:30 p.m. final grouping at 9 under with Kevin Kisner, who jumped 21 places on the leaderboard with his round of 64, another shot back.
Like Steele, Smith birdied his final three holes of the day, highlighted by a chip-in from the back of the green on the par-3 17th.
“I like to lead, but you know, I’ve come from behind before in tournaments and I’ll draw from that (today),” Smith said. “Should be a nice battle. Hopefully some more conditions like this. Bit tougher conditions I think will bring a lot of people into it, so should be exciting.”
Steele and Cameron Davis began the day with a one-shot lead at 6 under, with nine pursuers just behind. Steele appeared in danger of being swallowed up by the pack after bogeys on the third and fourth holes. An eagle at No. 9 — set up by a 4-iron from 209 yards to leave an 8-foot putt — kick-started a run of 7 under par over his last 10 holes of the day.
“I felt really comfortable and calm today, which is not always the case when things aren’t going well,” Steele said. “I wasn’t on Thursday certainly. I was upset. A couple mistakes that I made really got me down. So I think that’s really a key for me, and that gave me a chance to use the rest of the holes to shoot a good score.”
Steele won the Valero Texas Open in 2011 and the Safeway Open in 2016 and ’17, but 2018-19 was a struggle with 12 cuts made in 22 starts and he didn’t get out to a rousing start to the current season in missing two of his last three cuts prior to the break leading into the tour’s Hawaii swing.
He spent his time off continuing to hone his touch on the greens, and the work has paid off so far as he leads the field in putting though 54 holes.
He rolled in a 10-footer for birdie on the par-3 11th, then made another from 23 feet out on No. 12. After a birdie on 16, he stuck his tee shot inside of 4 feet on the par-3 17th. He had 40 feet for eagle on the 18th as rain and darkness closed in and came up just short before finishing with birdie.
“I spent a lot time working on putting probably the last six months trying to get to a place where I was confident in my stroke knowing that the mechanics were good enough,” Steele said, “then I could go through the process of making sure I was focused on the read and the commitment and really … playing golf from that standpoint rather than playing the putting stroke.
“So that’s been a big change for me definitely this week. I’ve tried to do that. It’s worked really well.”
Kisner, who also has three wins on tour, started his day at 2 under and four strokes back and was the first to reach 8 under, moving to the top of the leaderboard, at least for the moment, with a birdie at the par-5 18th.
“I’ve been hitting the ball beautifully, controlling my distance really well and my flight all week, and I just started to hole putts,” Kisner said.
First-round leader Collin Morikawa, 2010 Sony Open champion Ryan Palmer and Webb Simpson will make up today’s penultimate group at 7 under. Simpson moved into contention with a 66 on Saturday and Morikawa and Palmer kept contact with the lead at 68.