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Sony Open: Pair of pacesetters

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser — Jason Kaneshiro The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Jan. 12--Chris Kirk escaped the Georgia chill for a New Year's Day arrival on Oahu looking forward to some vacation time while warming up for another run at Waialae Country Club.

Around that time, Zach Johnson was fighting through a case of the chills among the flu symptoms that delayed his arrival in advance of the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Both dusted off the holiday layoff quite nicely on Thursday to enter today's round tied atop the leaderboard.

Kirk set a brisk pace on a rather still morning at Waialae to take the clubhouse lead with a round of 7-under-par 63.

With the breeze stirring a bit in the afternoon, Johnson matched Kirk with the second-best round among the 43 he's played in 13 starts at Waialae.

Johnson won the tournament in 2009 and placed in the top 10 three of the past four years. So he wasn't about to let the flu keep him from making the trip even though "I was not right getting on the plane."

"It's one of my favorite weeks on tour," Johnson said. "It's great for family, we stay right here, kids love it. Obviously, I love the golf course, it's one of those old hidden gems as far as I'm concerned.

"I love starting the year here. It's hard not to come here."

Johnson said he'd originally planned to arrive in the state on Jan. 2 to visit a friend on the Big Island, but his illness delayed his departure to Jan. 5. His first practice session on Saturday was less than encouraging ("legs were shot, back hurt"), but he gradually regained strength over the week and tore out of the gate with birdies on his first three holes.

He stayed out of trouble the rest of the way, posting three more birdies before catching Kirk with a 5-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th.

"It just fits my game," Johnson said of his affinity for Waialae. "This is a course (where) you have to keep it in front of you. I'm familiar with the greens, I like a good Bermuda like this. You have to hit it straight, if you hit it in the rough it's just hard to control shots and thus hard to get it close."

That said, he's not all that fond of some of the more recent changes to the layout, particularly to the greens at Nos. 6 and 17.

"(No. 11) was done last year, so it sounds like they're going to keep doing that, which is unfortunate in my opinion because the course was really good, to begin with," he said. "But it is a members golf course and that's the priority, so no big deal there."

Kirk's bogey-free round on Thursday was his 18th in the 60s in 25 tours of the course and his best at Waialae since a 62 in the second round in 2013. He tied for fifth that year and followed with a runner-up finish in 2014.

Kirk missed the cut the last two years and arrived on Oahu on Jan. 1 to spend some time with his family on Oahu's west side while preparing for his eighth Sony Open appearance.

He tied for fourth at the RSM Classic in Georgia in November, when he also opened the week with a 63, and didn't swing the clubs much until working in some practice at the Ernie Els-designed course at Hoakalei Country Club over the past week.

"The golf course I was playing over here, which is a really great golf course, really conditioned very well, it's all paspalum, it's a really long, kind of wide golf course, so it couldn't be more opposite from this course," Kirk said. "(But) it was really just about me getting out and getting loosened up a little bit and feeling how my swing felt in this warm weather."

Kirk worked off the rust well enough to play his first eight holes at 1 under, then blitzed through the back nine for a 5-under 30. He tapped in for birdie at 18 after his 10-foot eagle putt slid by the left edge.

"My swing kind of felt better and better as the day went on," Kirk said. "Hit a few loose shots in the front but really kind of tightened it up as the round progressed."

Kirk and Johnson check in today with a one-shot lead over four players -- Vaughn Taylor, Kyle Stanley, Talor Gooch and Brian Harman -- with another four at 5 under.

Defending champion Justin Thomas begins his second round at 8 a.m. tied for 20th at 3 under.

Thomas, who opened with a 59 on his way to setting the PGA Tour's 72-hole scoring record at 27 under 253 last year, turned in a bogey-free round capped by a 12-footer for birdie on No. 18.

Jordan Spieth, the world's second-ranked player, enters today's play at 1 under after his eight birdies were all but undone by a quadruple-bogey in an adventure among the trees lining the eighth fairway.

SONY OPEN NOTEBOOK

Spieth behind the No. 8 ball

Jordan Spieth was sailing along at 4 under in his opening round of the Sony Open in Hawaii and along came crazy No. 8.

Starting on the back nine, Spieth's 17th hole was the 456-yard par-4 that is not all that imposing. It's fairly straight off the tee with the pin cut back left next to the bunker. To say the world's second-best golfer made a mess of it would not be an exaggeration.

Amazingly, he hit four trees on four consecutive shots without a penalty. His fifth went into the bunker, sixth on the green and two putts for a snowman in golf parlance, a quadruple-bogey eight for those keeping score at home. He went from a tie for seventh to a tie for 60th, before carding a birdie at the last to shoot a 69.

When you break down his scorecard it's even more intriguing. It's not often a pro has eight birdies on his card and is only 1 under for his round. Throw in three bogeys and the quadruple for good measure and that adds up to eight down and seven up.

Those who saw him at No. 8 firsthand described it as an exercise in futility. A few choice words could be heard from the irate Texan, who started near the dry ditch guarding the left-hand side of the fairway and remained in or around that area for three successive shots. At one point, Spieth swung his club violently like a baseball player going down on strikes.

ShotLink described it this way: Tee shot 244 yards, 199 yards from the hole. Second shot 54 yards, 181 yards from the hole. Third shot 75 yards, 106 yards from the hole. Fourth shot 62 feet, 8 inches from the primary rough, 86 yards from the hole. Fifth shot 73 yards into the greenside bunker. Sixth shot on the green, 28 feet 4 inches from the hole. Seventh shot 26 feet, 1 foot, 7 inches from the hole. Eighth shot in the hole.

Flat stick heats up for Stanley

Kyle Stanley didn't exactly light it up last week at the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Maui. Thanks in part to a cold putter and grainy greens, he finished 30th in a field of 34 golfers due in part to a lot of missed birdie putts.

Stanley rolled in 161 feet of putts in Thursday's opening round en route to a 6-under 64 that left him just off the lead of 7 under turned in by Chris Kirk in the morning pairings and past Sony Open champ and two-time major winner Zach Johnson in the afternoon.

"Yeah, it was nice," Stanley said. "I saw some putts go in today, which was good. I feel like I rolled the ball really well. I struggled on the greens last week, so just put some extra time in with the putter leading into this week and it really paid off. These greens are certainly in better shape than the ones last week. They're just rolling really well."

Stanley began today's second round tied for third with Talor Gooch, Vaughn Taylor and Brian Harman.

Inside the numbers

If you want to make the cut after today's second round, you'd best be in red numbers. There were 77 golfers who shot 1 under or better in ideal conditions at the Waialae Country Club. There was little wind and no rain for the 144 players who teed it up Thursday. The worst score was an 8-over 78.

The scoring average was a healthy 69.208. There were 18 eagles in the opening round, with eight coming at the par-5 18th and the other 10 at the par-5 ninth. Last year, Waialae Country Club surrendered the third-most eagles in a PGA Tour event. That's impressive since there are only two par-5s at the par-70 layout.

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