PGA 2011: 10 Players Who Impressed at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions

Will LeivenbergFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2011

PGA 2011: 10 Players Who Impressed at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions

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    3- The number of bogey’s Jonathan Byrd made over 72 holes en route to the first official victory of 2011 at the Kapalua Plantation Course in Maui.

    24- Strokes under-par Robert Garrigus finished after four consecutive rounds in the 60s before losing on the second hole of a playoff against Jonathon Byrd.

    11- Birdies carded by the red-hot Graeme McDowell, who tied the course-record with a stunning 62 Sunday.

    23- Age of the youngest player in the field, Jason Day, who finished T9 at -14, highlighted by a sensational second round 66.

    Despite a start as slow as a turtle race, the 2011 PGA Tour opener picked up momentum and showcased a variety of players fluctuating atop the leaderboard. I

    t was only in the final round, Sunday at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, that a few gritty, sweet-swinging golfers set themselves apart from the rest, generating one of the most suspenseful kick-off tournaments in years.

Jonathan Byrd

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    Byrd soared at Kapalua.

    The Plantation Course is deceptive, testing players accuracy in the mist of swirling winds and uneven lies. But Byrd found a perfect fusion between aggressive and conservative play in the face of the course’s serious difficulty.

    On most of the holes that McDowell or Garrigus smashed drivers off of, Byrd calmly fired a three or four iron off the tee, which often led to a pitching wedge right in his wheelhouse. He understood which shots he was best at and took advantage every chance he could.

    Just reference the 13th hole, a 407-yard, uphill par-4 featuring a narrow, plush, green fairway with an elevated green. After a four iron with a slight draw settled in the fairway, Byrd stuffed a pitching wedge to within three-feet, tapped it in and strolled off with his birdie, making it look effortless.  But to give you a sense of his strategy, Byrd then pulled the driver on the next hole, which was just 305-yards. 

    Ultimately, Byrd won this event because his entire game was in sync, but his putting was what truly set him apart. After nine holes on Sunday, Byrd was 45 for 46 on putts inside five feet.  He carded 25 birdies over his four rounds and ranked T3 in Putts Per Round with 29.0. Byrd was incredibly consistent, carding rounds of 66-68-67-67, and though no one likes to win the way he did, he still earned the right to hoist the trophy.

Carl Petterson

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    Petterson’s got that stereotypical golfer's body; short and pudgy, but none of that really matters when you finish T3 in the Tournament of Champions. 

    His game looked sharp all week, surprisingly with his irons guiding him to the high finish.

    At the beginning of the week, when each player is introduced on Golf Channel, a small chart displays how each player graded the various aspects of their game, such as ‘Putting,’ ‘Irons,’ and ‘Driving.’  For 2010, Petterson gave himself a flat-out ‘F’ for his irons, calling it undeniably the most unpredictable part of his game.

    Well you wouldn’t have guessed that this week.

    Petterson was constantly putting himself in the fairway off the tee and from there taking advantage with his irons, hitting 85 percent of Greens In Regulation over the four days.

    In addition to the solid iron play, Petterson was wizard on the greens, ranking T3 in Putts Per Round with 28.8.

    Swing for show and putt for dough never rang truer.

Steve Stricker

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    Steve Stricker has never been the most aggressive player, which is why his conservative approach throughout the tournament—irons off the tee, leaving putts short, not challenging pins—did not pay off.

    Stricker’s calm, cool and collected approach paired with his luminous dual-victory season in 2010 made him appear poised to make the leap passed final round over co-leaders Byrd and Garrigus. However, instead of rising to the occasion, Stricker looked simply out of sorts Sunday.

    He continued to make uncharacteristic mistakes; missing his lay-up targets, struggling with short putts that are normally his bread and butter, but overall emanating a discomfort and lack of concentration. His rounds of 69-67-65-71 were enough to earn him a solid top-5 finish, but he definitely let a viable opportunity slip away.

Robert Garrigus

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    Of the 32 players in the illustrious field, Garrigus never appeared to be a threat. The 33-year-old has been a professional golfer since 1997, but only entered the spotlight last season after a surprise win at the Children’s Miracle Classic.

    It became the Cinderalla story of 2010 because the victory clinched his tour card for the following season. But his victory was also that much sweeter because of Garrigus’ memorable, probably still stinging, collapse last season at the St. Jude Classic. Garrigus had a three-stroke lead going into the 72nd hole, but watched it slowly, and brutally, evaporate due to costly mistakes, which ultimately lost him the tournament.

    Regardless of his unconventional swing and rather lame history on the PGA Tour, Garrigus’ outgoing, jovial attitude on and off the golf course spurred him to the top of the leaderboard and into the hunt Sunday at the Hyundai. His gargantuan drives, aggressive iron play and crafty short game continued to blossom into the final round, leading to a final round six-under par, 67, and playoff against Jonathon Byrd.

    But right when the playoff began, there was a palpable sense that Byrd had the advantage. Byrd's a less volatile player, and without a doubt a more reliable putter then Garrigus, who’d become notorious throughout the Tour for his hunched over posture for his unusually small, almost junior-sized putter.

    Garrigus ended up losing on the second hole of the playoff when he missed a short, gut-check, three-foot putt, but it was a noble fight until the end for Garrigus.

    After taking 2nd place, Garrigus reportedly joked “I shot 45 under my last eight rounds, that's kind of hilarious to think about. This is really not that disappointing. When I have a job and make a half-million dollars and can be upset about it, I've got a pretty damn good job.”

Jason Day

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    While everyone continued to hype up young guns like Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy, I’m going to place my bets on 23-year-old Jason Day, who had a breakthrough four days at Kapalua, finishing T9 in the champions field.

    Day struggled at the outset, posting an even-par 73 on day one, but then roared back with rounds of 66-69, with just a single bogey in those 36 holes. Entering Sunday, Day may not have been a legitimate contender for the victory, but he was poised for a top-5 finish, leading the field in Putts Per Round with 28.5.

    On Sunday, Day’s momentum was initially blocked by an opening bogey, but he fired four birdies on the front nine and was inching closer to the leaders. Though a double bogey set him back on the 13th hole, Day finished strong with a final round 70.

    After winning the HP Byron Nelson Championship midway through the 2010 season, Day went on a tear and appears apt to maintain his dynamic course. In eight of his last 12 events of the season, Day finished in the top-25, including a T10 at the PGA Championship and back to back top-5 finishes in the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs.

    The young Australian does not resemble his Aussie counterparts, like Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott or Stuart Appleby, but is part of this new breed of arising, young stars who fuse powerful drives (averaged 298-yards off the tee in 2010) with outstanding putting skills (ranked 12th in Putts between 20-25 feet).

    This opening finish was just a positive sign of things to come for kid who may just rule the day.

Anthony Kim

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    Anthony Kim’s 10-under par finish landed him a T19 finish and was a positive sign of his rejuvenated game.

    After an incredible opening eight events last season, Kim was forced to watch from outside the ropes due to a season-ending thumb injury. Then, when Kim attempted to return in hopes of earning a place on the Ryder Cup Team, his game was clearly not back to his full, dominant form, resulting in poor finishes and multiple missed cuts.

    Though his game has clearly not fully returned, he looked free of pain and back on track in Maui. Kim has always had an aggressive approach to golf, swinging out of his shoes with his driver, attacking pins and never leaving a putt short. His opening rounds of 69-71 were promising, but were followed by a disastrous third round 74, in which three bogeys and a triple bogey halted Kim’s hopes of a high finish.

    But Sunday was a strong sign for the 25-year-old, two-time PGA Tour winner, who made just a single bogey en route to a final round 68 and T19 finish.

Graeme McDowell

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    McDowell looked fearless Sunday. He carded a blistering 11-under par 62, tying the course record and also breaking the record for most birdies in a single round at Kapalua, with 11.

    Americans beware: No golfer on this planet has as much momentum as this Northern-Irishmen.

    After an opening round of two-under par 71, McDowell fired back to back 68’s, but seemed too far back to be in the hunt Sunday. But for the man who shocked golf fans throughout 2010 with unlikely, but impressive victories under pressure, McDowell once again rose to the occasion. Through his first nine holes of the final round, the US Open winner had fought back with seven birdies, breathing down the neck of leader Jonathon Byrd.

    Between his US Open victory, miraculous winning putt at the Ryder Cup against Hunter Mahan and then stunning playoff victory over Tiger Woods just a few weeks ago at the Chevron World Challenge, McDowell clearly fed off his underdog status last season and showed he’s not ready to fade out of the spotlight.

    McDowell would finish at 23-under-par and missed the playoff by a single shot. But, while he did not claim the victory, he made history at Kapalua and sent shockwaves throughout the golf world.

Bill Haas

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    The 28-year-old Haas looked like a seasoned vet at Kapalua, shooting four terrific under-par rounds of 68-70-69-69.

    This week, his game looked sharp, carding two bogey-free rounds at the outset of the event. He then fired consecutive 69’s over the weekend, catapulting him into the top-10 for a solo 8th finish at -16 under par.

    Haas’ accuracy off the tee was consistent (T7 in Driving Accuracy for the week), but his putting was what truly set the tone of his performance this week. Though he ranked T14 in Putts Per Round with 30.5, he also had only four bogeys over the four days, illustrating his ability to minimize mistakes, especially by sinking clutch putts.  His smooth, rhythmic putting stroke looked totally in sync all four days of the event.

    If he can maintain that effective putting stroke, he may have another triumphant season, after impressively winning twice in 2010, first at the Bob Hope Classic and then again at the Viking Classic.

Matt Kuchar

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    Matt Kuchar tread calmly along the Plantation Course at Kapalua, admiring the scenery, gossiping with his caddy, chatting with fans, oh, and he played some golf too.

    In Maui, Kuchar continued to do what he does best—pound drives down the middle of the fairway, smack iron shots to within ten feet, and delicately sink putts like an artist spreading paint across a canvas.

    Kuchar began the event modestly with rounds of 69-70 and then went on a birdie rampage Saturday en route to a seven-under par 66. He began Sunday four shots back of the leader, which didn’t seem out of reach for the man who won the Barclay’s and finished in the top-10 11 times last season.

    His Sunday 69 earned him T6 honors, which will presumably be one of his many top-10’s in 2011.

    Overall, it was a Kuchar-like performance; he ranked T5 in Putts Per Round with 29.3, T5 for Birdies with 24, and 4th in Putts Per Green in Regulation with 1.6. He remains the most consistent, unflappable player on tour until someone shows him up, but I wouldn’t count on that happening any time soon.

Ian Poulter

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    As much as it hurt to watch Poulter eat his cereal out of the Ryder Cup (http://www.twitvid.com/V6GEK), there’s no denying the pure joy of watching one of the game’s greats rip drives and drain putts.

    Poulter was in a groove throughout the Hyundai, posting rounds of 70-68-70-66, finishing T6 at -18 under par.

    Each of the four days Poulter did a terrific job of capitalizing when he hit greens in regulation, finishing T8 in Putts Per Greens in Regulation at 1.6. His putting stroke looked firm and confident, resulting in 24 birdies over the four days (T5 in the field). Nine of those 24 birdies came on Sunday, when Poulter looked almost unconscious under the sunshine and blue skies of Maui.

    He shot two under-par on the front nine, with two bogeys to counter his four birdies, but performed flawlessly on the back nine, draining five birdies for a dazzling, closing round of seven-under par, 66.