Experience crucial at Sony Open

January, 11, 2011

The Sony Open marks the first full-field event on the PGA Tour in 2011, meaning many rookies will be playing their first career event, holding the proverbial golden ticket into the world's most prestigious golf tour.

Trivia question

Jonathan Byrd won both his last start of 2010 (Shriners) and the first event of 2011 at Kapalua. Who is the last player to win three straight starts on the PGA Tour? (Answer below.)

The class of rookies is 35 deep this year, to be exact: 19 from Q-school, 13 from the Nationwide Tour and three from the nonmember money list.

Among them is Joseph Bramlett, the second-youngest member of the 2011 rookie class. Bramlett is noteworthy for another reason, though. According to the PGA Tour, he's the first black golfer to advance through Q-school since Adrian Stills in 1985. Bramlett, who played at Stanford University, got to play a practice round with fellow Cardinal Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open last year.

There's also Bio Kim of South Korea, who turned 20 last August. Four players in the field this week also played in this event the year Kim was born (1990): Billy Mayfair (T-6), Dave Eichelberger (T-43), Davis Love III (T-43) and Fred Funk (MC).

And then there's Jamie Lovemark, who became the youngest winner of the Nationwide Tour Player of the Year in 2010. Lovemark, 22, surpassed Stewart Cink (1996) and Nick Flanagan (1997), who both turned 23 in the spring of the year they won the award.

These fresh faces and new storylines are all well and good, but it might take a while for the new blood to sit on top of a leaderboard. Any golf fan can tell you that immediate success for rookies on the PGA Tour is few and far between. No one has won in their first start as an official member of the PGA Tour since Garrett Willis in 2001.

Experience in Hawaii, both at Waialae and Kapalua, is of great benefit for anyone teeing it up at the Sony Open. Eight of the past 12 winners at this event played the week before at Kapalua. No player has won the Sony Open in his first career start in the event since Bruce Lietzke in 1977, and it's been eight years since a player picked up his first tour win here -- that was Jerry Kelly in 2002. No player in his 20s has won this event since Paul Stankowski in 1997.

A slice of PGA Tour history has been made at Waialae in years past. The record for most eagles made in a 72-hole event is five -- done twice at this event. Dave Eichelberger did it in 1980, and Davis Love III did it in 1994. Both players are in the field this week: Love isn't a surprise, but Eichelberger is a bit of one.

At the Aloha Section PGA Professional Championship in September, the veteran Champions Tour player did something all golfers aspire to accomplish: Eichelberger shot his age. The 67-year-old shot a 5-under-par 67 to win the event and pick up the Sony Open exemption that came with it. This will be Eichelberger's 20th career start in the event -- his first start came back in 1968.

With winds not causing much of a commotion last weekend at Kapalua, low scores were in abundance. A tally of 24-under was needed to make the playoff between winner Jonathan Byrd and runner-up Robert Garrigus. Graeme McDowell tied the course record Sunday with a 62 -- and even had an outside shot at 59 coming down the stretch (on a par 73, no less) -- but finished one shot out of the playoff.

A smaller field consisting solely of champions from the preceding year makes Kapalua a unique event, where low numbers are an annual occurrence. It's a different tune at the first full-field event of the year. Looking at the two Hawaii events, Kapalua has a field scoring average more than 8 full shots lower than Waialae over the past four years combined. While the winner at Waialae has been either 15- or 14-under-par for each of the past four years, the Kapalua winner has now been 22-under or lower for three straight.

The toughest hole at Waialae is No. 2, a 423-yard par-4. An extremely difficult tee shot has to be placed between the water and a pair of fairway bunkers that guard the right side. At an average of +.270 shots above par last year, the second hole ranked among the 50-toughest holes on the PGA Tour in 2010. The hole had a birdie-or-better percentage of just 7.8 percent.

Trivia answer

Question: Jonathan Byrd won both his last start of 2010 (Shriners) and the first event of 2011 at Kapalua. Who is the last player to win three straight starts on the PGA Tour?

Answer: Tiger Woods, who won four straight starts. The 2007 BMW Championship, 2007 TOUR Championship, 2008 WGC-Accenture Match Play and 2008 Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Compare that to Waialae's Hawaiian contemporary. The toughest hole at Kapalua last year was the par-3 second, which checked in at a field average of 3.161. That doesn't seem like an enormous difference, but consider this: No hole at Kapalua has been among the 50 toughest on the PGA Tour since 2006.

Waialae isn't exactly Bethpage Black after the USGA had its hands on it, but the track should be a little tougher for the guys this week than last.

Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.





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