KAUPULEHU — The wind stayed at bay at Hualalai on Thursday during the first round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship. The low scores did not.
In the field of 44 golfers, 36 shot even par or better at the PGA Tour Champions season-opening event, with Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly leading the way with rounds of 8-under 64.
Sauers played bogey-free golf in just his third round at Hualalai. During his debut on the Big Island last season, he was in contention after going 12-under through two days, but didn’t get a chance to chase the leaders down when the final round was called off.
Call it unfinished business for Sauers, someone who knows a thing or two about never giving up the fight. He earned the PGA Courage Award last season for battling through Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare and painful skin condition which caused his skin to burn from the inside out.
“I was actually playing pretty good,” Sauers said, recalling his tournament last year on the Big Island. “It could have went one way or the other way, who knows. We couldn’t play it anyway — the palm trees were about to snap.”
The winds were blowing hard along the Kona coast on Wednesday during the Pro-Am, and the same conditions were expected for the opening round. But instead, golfers were greeted by cloudless skies and just a light breeze.
“We got lucky. Thank goodness it didn’t blow,” Sauers said. “You never know around here. You’ve just got to play your game and just try to eliminate mistakes and just give yourself opportunities.”
Kelly gave himself plenty of opportunities to play in the final grouping today, especially on the back nine. The Champions Tour newly-minted Rookie of the Year reeled off birdies on six of his final nine holes — including an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 18 — to move into a tie with Sauers.
He is one of only two players in the tournament — Vijay Singh being the other — who played in the Sony Open last week on Oahu.
“Last week helped a lot just to prepare because I took my first two months off since probably 1989 when I turned pro,” Kelly said. “I played really well last week. If I would have putted like I did today, I would have won, easy.”
Kelly is seeking to become the 10th player to win in their first try on the Big Island. However, he’s a rookie only in name at Hualalai.
“This is my first tournament round here, but I’ve played many rounds here,” Kelly said. “I love the islands. I have fun over here every single time and this is where I come to prepare for the season. Been coming here for years and it still didn’t help me get in the tournament last year. I couldn’t, so I had to fight my way in here and it felt good to do that.”
Rocco Mediate has been a fixture in the top 10 at Hualalai since his debut in 2014, finishing in the top 10 in all three of his tries (he didn’t play the tournament in 2016). He teed off early in the third group of the day, so he spent most of the afternoon as the clubhouse leader after turning in a 65. But after his second best round at Hualalai — his best being a 63 in 2014 — Mediate wasn’t convinced he would be sitting atop the leaderboard when the day was over.
“If you’re not shooting low scores, you’re done. Seven won’t be leading after this, more than likely,” he said standing just off the 18th green. “I’ve always liked this place. We were expecting way more wind, which is fine, either way’s fine. This golf course is built for wind, but it was good, fun.”
Defending and three-time Hualalai champion Bernhard Langer is in a log-jam at 3-under 69. He’s never shot worse than par in a round at Hualalai.
On opening day there were 28 rounds in the 60s and three players who posted bogey free rounds. Along with Sauers, Fred Couples and Tom Kite achieved the feat.
Colin Montgomerie and Mediate had their putters going in the first round. They each hit just 25 putts over 18 holes on what were unusually slower greens for Hualalai.
“They didn’t cut the greens today because they were expecting 40 mph winds, so they were a little slower,” Mediate said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily easier or harder, but they’ll get back to normal.”
The rookie scale
Kelly is setting the pace in a tie for the lead, but first-time players Kevin Sutherland and Stephen Ames experienced different levels of play in their debut rounds at Hualalai. Sutherland — the 2017 Charles Schwab Cup champ — sits two strokes back of the leaders at 6-under, while Ames shot 2-over.
Fellow rookie Brandt Jobe is also in the thick of things, sitting inside the top-15 at 4-under.
Hualalai’s hole No. 7 was the easiest on the Champions Tour last season, but a few other stops on the course are going to give it a run for the title.
The 526-yard No. 4 let up a round-high 30 birdies and just two bogeys. The par 5, 10th saw golfers hit three eagles and 26 birdies, taking the No. 1 ranking for the round.
The most difficult hole of the day was hole No. 3. Golfers scored just three birdies on the 205-yard hole, compared to seven bogeys, four double-bogeys and one triple-bogey.
Quote of the day
“If ifs and ands were pots and pans, the world would be a kitchen.” – Jerry Kelly talking about what he could have done better during the first round.