The Sony Open took a while to get started. So did Stuart Appleby.
Appleby was humming along Friday on rain-soaked Waialae Country Club, no bogeys on his cards but not many birdies, either. That changed when he holed a 163-yard shot from the fairway and a 35-foot putt on the next green to finish with a 6-under 64.
That gave him a one-shot lead over nine players from Matt Kuchar and Justin Rose to a pair of rookies in Nate Smith and Ben Martin. In soft conditions and only a light breeze, 65 players in the 144-man field broke par.
Appleby shot 30 on the back nine, including a chip-in from the front of the 12th green. Then came a strong finish, with a 5-iron that he holed out for eagle on the 16th and the long birdie putt on the 17th.
”Less than two hours, really went from a pretty plain round to a good round,” Appleby said.
No one could catch him in the afternoon. Shigeki Maruyama, a popular figure in these parts, was at 5 under through 12 holes until he dropped a few shots on the back and had to birdie the 18th for a 65.
Martin, who just graduated from Clemson last year, wasn’t sure what to expect. It wasn’t the ideal preparation for his first regular PGA Tour event, although it was out of his hands. He had to do a commercial shoot on Tuesday, then couldn’t practice Wednesday because the range was closed and didn’t play Thursday when rain washed out the opening round.
”I hadn’t hit a golf shot in three days,” he said.
He hit most of them quite well in the opening round. Five of his birdies were from inside 8 feet, and two others came on the par 5s that he reached in two. It helped to have some experience on the bag. Martin sent his caddie to California to study the four courses used in the Bob Hope Classic, and he used Frank Williams, the longtime caddie for Stewart Cink, who was coming to Hawaii on vacation.
Martin hadn’t ever seen Waialae until this week, so the soft conditions didn’t feel different.
That wasn’t the case for the veterans.
”I have never seen the course like this,” Steve Stricker said after rallying for a 69. The fairways were too wet to mow, and grass clippings that had been floating in water created yellow patches of debris.
Appleby said the course was ”heavy,” but he had no complaints. Players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls through the fairway, although some players felt by the end of the day it wasn’t necessary.
”Much better than I expected,” said Kuchar, who made a long eagle putt on the ninth and made only one bogey.
Appleby was among those who started his season last week on Maui, and it was a struggle. The Sony Open offers a completely different test, minus the mountainous terrain and the severe slope on the greens with a strong grain.
He felt more relaxed here, and the finish helped.
Appleby chipped in for birdie from in front of the 12th green – ”sort of freshened up that par, par, par I had the first couple hours on the front nine,” he said – added a birdie on the 13th and then finished with a flourish. With a slight breeze off the Pacific, from 163 yards away on the 16th, he hit an easy 5-iron right of the flag and was surprised to hear the cheer when it went in for an eagle.
Before long, a good score was a great one. It was his lowest opening round in 10 years at the Sony Open.
Appleby played in the same group with Rose, and Appleby thought the Englishman played far better from tee to green, the difference perhaps being that Rose didn’t hole any full shots from the fairway.
Rose opened with a 75 last week and played well from there, finishing in a tie for 12th.
”I didn’t panic, just really realized that it was a good week to knock off some rust and start growing some good habits,” he said. ”And the week kind of evolved and I got better every day. It was nice to carry that on into this week.”
This week figures to be different. Because an entire round was washed out, the plan is to play the second round on Saturday, followed by a 36-hole marathon on Sunday.
Some players did well to rally. Vijay Singh, playing for only the second time in the last four months, was 4 over through six holes. He birdied four of his last six holes for a 70. And then there was Charles Warren, who got into the Sony Open through his top-10 finish at Disney in the final tournament of the year. Warren birdied his last hole at Disney, which not only put him in Honolulu to start the year, but got him inside the top 150 on the money list to give him at least conditional status.
He promptly made three straight bogeys to start his season and was 4 over through six holes. It took him until the eighth hole to take honors from 67-year-old Dave Eichelberger, playing as local club pro for winning the Aloha Section. But Warren turned it around by playing 5 under over his last 10 holes for a 69.
Eichelberger had a 76, and that wasn’t the worst of it. Michael Thompson, one of 27 rookies at Waialae, posted the first 80 on the PGA Tour this year. One of the veterans, Jeff Maggert, had a 75.
”Almost shot my age,” said Maggert, who at 46 has been around long enough to laugh at himself.