HONOLULU—Activity on the practice range at Waialae used to be predictable. Instead of standing behind players to watch their swings, the more common move was to stand to the side and try to inconspicuously look at the front of the golf bag to see whose name was on it.
Such was the case this year at the Sony Open, even though it was the 11th tournament of the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Tour’s final wraparound season.
It was the first time the tour went from an elevated event (Sentry Tournament of Champions with a $15 million purse) to a regular event (Sony Open at $7.9 million).
And it might have the first glimpse of the PGA Tour future.
While 19 of the 38 players who finished at Kapalua made the 22-minute flight from Maui to Honolulu, no one was among the top 10 in the world ranking. The four players from the top 20 — Jordan Spieth, Tom Kim, Billy Horschel and Sungjae Im — all missed the cut.
This is what the PGA Tour could look like going forward. Its response to the threat of Saudi-funded LIV Golf is a schedule that brings together the biggest names as often as possible. No telling what that does to the rest of the tournaments on the schedule.
There remains a lot of work to be done ahead of 2024. Along with when tournaments will be played — this could be a major shakeup — the key decisions are the size of the field, whether there will be 36-hole cut and access for the lesser names who play great golf.
The Hawaii swing was an easy target for the worst-case scenario.
One tournament had only PGA Tour winners from the year before and anyone who made it to the Tour Championship at East Lake. The field was 39 players, with two Irish golfers (Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry) skipping. Three of the top four players going into the final day had won three of the last five majors.
The other had 144 players — the rounds didn’t finish on Thursday and Friday because of darkness — and several of them have yet to leave their mark on the game.
It was a “Who’s Who” at Kapalua and a “Who’s That?” at Waialae.
For those who might have watched in the small space of time between NFL wild-card games Saturday evening, they would have seen a leaderboard in which nine of the top 15 had never won on the PGA Tour, and only two from that group (Chris Kirk and Si Woo Kim) had won more than once.
Oddly enough, both tournaments were compelling and featured comebacks.
Jon Rahm won at Kapalua despite trailing two-time major champion Collin Morikawa by six shots on the back nine, posting a 63 on the final day.
Kim made up his three-shot deficit in three holes (he missed a 4-foot birdie on the par-3 fourth) against Hayden Buckley, and then the final 30 minutes was good theater. Buckley made a 15-foot birdie putt on the 16th to take the lead. Kim heard the cheers from 200 yards away, figured it was birdie or bust, and chipped in from 30 feet from behind the 17th green to tie him.
On the par-5 18th, Kim flushed a 5-iron from the fairway bunker that ran onto the front of the green for a two-putt birdie from 40 feet for a 64. Buckley couldn’t get up-and-down from a tough spot short and right of the green.
Kim was 21 when he won The Players Championship in 2017 against the strongest and deepest field in golf. This one didn’t feel any easier.
“No matter what field it is, it’s so hard to win on the PGA Tour,” Kim said after collecting his fourth tour title. “Still has a lot of good players, big name or not. Still all the players really good out here.”
The American Express is this week in the California desert, and no one will be talking about the perception of a two-tour system because it has five of the top seven players in the world. That includes Masters champion Scottie Scheffler and Patrick Cantlay, both of whom will have a chance to reach No. 1 in the world.
For the players who aren’t getting a little extra under the table — the unofficial term is “cocktail party,” not appearance money — some habits die hard. The desert has always been a good place to start the year. It typically is as close as golf gets to an indoor sport because of the weather.
Torrey Pines will have it share of stars, as will Pebble Beach, until the PGA Tour wraps up the West Coast Swing with elevated events in Phoenix and Los Angeles.
At the Sony Open, Matt Kuchar was as guilty as anyone not knowing some of the players, even after playing three times in the fall against fields when the stars sat out.
“I feel like I get until at least through the West Coast before I feel mostly familiar with getting the names right and the faces right,” Kuchar said. “It’s exciting to see the new crop every year come up and try to figure out which of the guys are going to be here to stay and which of the guys are going to maybe not stay on top of the tour.”
Image credits: AP