There aren’t many drawbacks to the PGA Tour’s Hawaii swing for the golf viewer. If we had to come up with one, though, it’d be the long wait for television coverage to begin. The five-hour time difference (for East Coasters), and no PGA Tour Live featured group coverage, means eager golf fans have to sit around and wait until 7 p.m. to get their fix. Not only does playing golf require patience, watching it does too.
That patience has been rewarded so far this week with the Sony Open at Waialae, where the island vibes can be felt through the screen. The golf has been plenty good, too, as evidenced by the top of the leader board through 36 holes. Tournament favorite Webb Simpson, 47-year-old Stewart Cink and former Sony Open winner Russell Henley are among those at the top of the leader board, and there are a ton of other intriguing names close behind. Nick Taylor, reigning AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am winner, is the solo leader at 12 under.
Marc Leishman is playing like Marc Leishman again
Post-restart struggles were hardly unique to Marc Leishman, but you’d have a difficult time finding anyone who played worse between June and October. During that five-month stretch he made 12 starts, missed five cuts and failed to finish inside the top 40—yes, top FORTY—once. Actually, he did have a solo 29th, but that was at (checks notes) the Tour Championship, where there were only 30 players in the field. Good grief.
This was puzzling given Leishman is no journeyman tour pro. This is a top-30 player in the world with five PGA Tour wins, the most recent of which came last January at Torrey Pines. Two months later, a week before the season stopped, he nearly bagged a sixth victory at one of his favorite tour stops, Bay Hill, ultimately finishing second. He was just starting to cook before majors season, and then, post-restart, he was playing like it was some throwaway game up in Rochester. What was the issue?
For starters, he hit the ball like crap and putted it like, um, crappier crap. The good news is, Leish appears to finally be playing like Leish again. A T-13 at Augusta was the first good sign, and a good ball striking week at Kapalua was another (he finished T-24, but ranked eighth in the field in approach). The putter was still abysmal, but he put a new shaft on his flat stick at Waialae and is already seeing the benefits (Leishman gained nearly three strokes on the greens Friday). He’s also hitting it much better, ranking inside the top 10 in approach, tee-to-green, and total strokes gained through two rounds. The most important change, however, appears to be in the 37-year-old Aussie’s attitude.
“I’m feeling good over the ball,” said Leishman, who has shot rounds of 66 and 65 to reach nine under. “Sort of just got rid of all that bad stuff out of my head. Ready to think about the good stuff.”
Seems simple enough. It’s working so far in 2021, and while he’s yet to prove he’s fully back, it feels like we’re getting pre-COVID Leishman back in our lives, rather than the guy who was masquerading as him between June and October.
Peter Malnati is first-team, All-Grit
After saying that “angles aren’t important” on the PGA Tour (at most courses), Peter Malnati was running the risk of becoming a freezing cold take early in his second round. He began the day two off the lead, and quickly found himself seven back after going five over through his first seven holes. He tested the golf architecture gods, and they smited him accordingly.
But remember, this is Peter Malnati, who is the living embodiment of the phrase “just happy to be here.” If you think a rough seven-hole stretch was going to mess with his positive attitude, you’d be sorely mistaken. The 33-year-old proceeded to birdie six of his next eight, climbing all the way to one under for the day and nine under for the tournament, where he’d finish after going par-par-par on his final three holes. Mike Alstott type grit.
As it stands, 17 players are within four of Taylor’s lead, and 33 are within five (also known as “striking distance” on another birdie-fest course). Thirteen are within three, and a number of them could keep Taylor up tonight, including Collin Morikawa, Hideki Matsuyama and Kapalua runner-up Joaquin Niemann. With that and NFL on Saturday, it’s going to be a two-TV-type evening.
There’s making the cut, and then there is eagling the last to make the cut
Late Friday evening, Kevin Kisner was at one under par with three holes left and the cut line firmly at four under. For all the talk about this being a course that suits his game, he was heading for an early exit. Then, he hit it to six feet at the par-3 seventh and made the putt, and then buried a 17-footer for eagle at the ninth to get in the house at four under. Outside of a hole-in-one, I’m not sure there is a more boss way to make the weekend than that. With the leader board as bunched as it is, he can still make a serious run starting Saturday. Or, he’ll gladly settle for 20th place too.
The Kona winds do not have the clutch gene
One of the big themes of last week was the lack of Trade Winds, a Mark Rolfing favorite. This week at Waialae has been more of the same, though it’s the Kona Winds that have been seriously lacking. Are these winds overrated or what? Sounds like more of the same is expected on the weekend, which means a lot more birdies and not much carnage. Not my Hawaii swing!