PGA Tour Champions: Wind is the wild card as elite field tees off at Hualalai

RICK WINTERS/West Hawaii Today Bernhard Langer returns as the defending champion at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, which was shortened to 36 holes by windy conditions in 2017.

KAUPULEHU — A flurry of white caps on the Pacific Ocean served as the backdrop on the eve of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai on Wednesday.

For most, the sight invoked feelings of a year ago, when gusts as high as 45 mph led to balls rolling off greens without being touched and flag sticks looking like they were in an intense game of limbo.

The wild weather eventually led to the final round being called off for the first time in the tournament’s 20-plus years of being played on the Big Island. At 15-under after two rounds, Bernhard Langer was crowned champion for a third time at Hualalai in the shortened 36-hole event, edging Fred Couples by one stroke.

“It was pretty brutal,” Langer said of the conditions after wrapping up his Pro-Am round on Wednesday. “If it was a little stronger, they would have called it.”

Duffy Waldorf, the 2016 champ, shared a similar sentiment after hitting the clubhouse.

“It felt like it was a replay of last year’s final round,” Waldorf said. “But I guess in the end it was good practice in case we have to do it again this year.”

The past two years, the scoring average at Hualalai has been the lowest on the PGA Tour Champions (69.096). Helping that cause is the par-5 seventh, which ended up being the easiest hole of the entire season for the senior golfers. It yielded eight eagles and 53 birdies during last year’s event.

But numbers aside, things get dicey when the winds start blowing and Mother Nature decides to shake up the leaderboard.

“It can be (easy),” Langer said. “Unless it blows like this.”

Langer headlines the field of 44 — which includes nine World Golf Hall of Famers and 13 major winners — that has assembled on the Kona coast to open the Champions Tour season in paradise.

“It’s always been special, it’s my favorite spot really out on this tour,” Langer said. “What’s there not to like? A nice course, it’s a beautiful hotel, good food, weather, the whole thing.”

It’s an exclusive club that gets to battle for the tournament’s “Makau” trophy. The field is made up tournament winners from the past two seasons, winners of Champions Tour majors since 2013, eight additional invitees based on career PGA Tour wins and major championship titles, and World Golf Hall of Fame members who played a minimum of eight Champions Tour events in 2017.

“We don’t have many weak fields,” Langer said. “This is certainly everybody’s favorite. I mean, as soon as somebody wins a tournament, they say, ‘I get to go to Hawaii.’”

Fresh off his seventh career Player of the Year honor on the Champions Tour, Langer tees off at Hualalai as the odds-on favorite to hoist the trophy again. However, guys who get their first crack at Hualalai have had some success in recent years, with nine rookies taking home the title. Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez won the event in 2015 on his first try, and Waldorf was the most recent to do it in 2016..

“It was super special,” Waldorf said, recallinghis win, which he sealed with a clutch 25-foot birdie on the final hole of the tournament. “I think a lot of it had to do with being in Hawaii, being in a Tournament of Champions setting, playing with the best at the start of the year.”

Brant Jobe, Jerry Kelly, Kevin Sutherland and Stephen Ames are among those teeing off at the tournament for the first time.

Ames has been in the islands for nearly a month, vacationing and getting in a few rounds while island hopping. He plays out of Canada but is originally from Trinidad, describing himself on social media as a “laid back island boy at heart.”

He fits right in on the Big Island.

“It’s pretty much close to home,” said Ames, who will be getting married in the Aloha State the week after the tournament. “That’s what a Caribbean island is, just like this.”

Ames played the Pro-Am, and said he has a round at Hualalai under his belt from a previous trip here, gaining some valuable experience on the usually speedy greens. But the conversation always turns back to the weather when talking about expectations at Hualalai.

“If it picks up, then it’s a different animal,” Ames said. “If there’s no wind, then it comes down to the guy who’s making the most putts. If it’s like today — as an example — your ball striking has to be on because of the wind, so it’s going to be harder.”

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TEE TIMES

Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai

First Round Groupings and Starting Times

Thursday

10:06

Craig Stadler

Mark Wiebe

10:17

Mark Calcavecchia

Loren Roberts

Kohki Idoki

10:28

Tom Pernice Jr.

Esteban Toledo

Rocco Mediate

10:39

Jesper Parnevik

Jeff Maggert

Michael Allen

10:50

Olin Browne

Jay Haas

Woody Austin

11:01

Paul Broadhurst

Marco Dawson

Carlos Franco

11:12

Fred Funk

David Frost

Jeff Sluman

11:23

Peter Jacobsen

Sandy Lyle

Hale Irwin

11:34

Paul Goydos

Doug Garwood

Duffy Waldorf

11:45

Joe Durant

David Toms

Tom Lehman

11:56

Stephen Ames

Kirk Triplett

Gene Sauers

12:07

Mark O’Meara

Tom Kite

Vijay Singh

12:18

Colin Montgomerie

Tom Watson

Fred Couples

12:29

Miguel Angel Jimenez

Jerry Kelly

Brandt Jobe

12:40

Bernhard Langer

Scott McCarron

Kevin Sutherland