It may have only been a few weeks, but it felt much longer than that. However, televised golf returned to our screens this past weekend to kick off 2015 on the PGA and European Tours. And it was unquestionably intriguing, with two playoffs ensuring that the calendar year opened in dramatic fashion.
PGA Tour – Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
For the 17th consecutive year, the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions at Kapalua helped to fend off the winter blues. With the spectacular backdrop and clear seas of Hawaii adorning our TVs in January, it is always an event that warms the heart. And Monday’s finish was certainly a thriller.
Chris Kirk and Jason Day both tied the course record with stunning final rounds of 62, showing what was possible on the rolling track designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The Australian would ultimately finish just one shot off the mark alongside the mercurial Russell Henley and the talented Hideki Matsuyama, with two of America’s recent Ryder Cup stars grabbing the headlines at the top.
Jimmy Walker looked to be in full control of the tournament on the back-nine, but a sloppy finish would prove costly. Patrick Reed was four shots behind with four holes remaining, but he made them count. After making birdie on the 15th, the 24-year-old would hole out from 80 yards on the 16th. He had then looked to have potentially thrown the chance away making bogey on the penultimate hole, but a birdie on the 18th would catapult the confident Texan into a playoff with Walker.
With the chance of claiming the first title of 2015 on offer, neither player looked particularly convincing on the first hole of sudden death, but it was Reed who held his nerve to roll in a birdie putt to clinch his fourth victory in 35 PGA Tour starts.
A great start to the year for Reed, who now joins Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia to have won four times before their 25th birthday during the past two decades.
Top Five? Patrick Reed is edging ever closer. He certainly has a knack for winning. The most important skill of all.
European Tour – South African Open.
That drama at Kapalua came over 24 hours after similar (if more shocking) circumstances occurred in South Africa.
Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, was five shots clear heading into the final round of his national open. Yet to claim this title, the 30-year-old fell apart on the final five holes at Glendower. Dropping shots on the 14th and 17th, Schwartzel would three-putt for double bogey on the 16th. The damage had been done as he fell into a playoff with Englishman, Andy Sullivan.
Onto the playoff, and it was Sullivan (who shot a final round of 67) who would produce heroics. Out of position off the tee, the 28-year-old’s recovery shot from the trees will feature in a many a shot of the year montage at the end of the season. It was a remarkable effort, and it proved to be defining as he holed the resulting 10-footer for birdie to shock Schwartzel.
A maiden title on the European Tour for Sullivan, and it came most unexpectedly as he started seven shots behind on Sunday. And with a player of Schwartzel’s calibre holding the advantage, a victory would not have seemed likely at the outset.
But you have to like surprises.
This Week – Abu Dhabi Championship, Sony Open.
Well, after that dramatic start, how do we follow that? It’s time for the big guns to enter the fray. World number one, Rory McIlroy opens his 2015 this week in Abu Dhabi, a venue where he has finished as runner-up on three occasions. After thrilling us last year, the four-time major champion will be hoping to continue from where he left off with the Masters Tournament just a few months away.
But if the Northern Irishman is to be victorious at Abu Dhabi, he will have to overcome the challenge of the likes of Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Martin Kaymer and Rickie Fowler – who featured so prominently during McIlroy’s major triumphs last year. It is sure to be a compelling spectacle.
Across in Hawaii, the PGA Tour is still resident as its annual Sony Open tees off from the historic Waialae. An old course that places a premium more on straight hitting than distance, it presents an awkward challenge with the uncooperative winds of Honolulu keeping things interesting.
Jimmy Walker will be hoping to bounce back from the disappointment at Kapalua, as he returns to Waialae as defending champion. With last week’s strong performers Hideki Matsuyama, Russell Henley, Zach Johnson and Chris Kirk also in the field, the Sony Open is certain to be competitive as it celebrates the 50th anniversary at Waialae.