KAPALUA, Hawaii — Robert Garrigus, the biggest hitter on the PGA Tour, is leading the Tournament of Champions thanks to one of the shortest clubs in his bag.
Garrigus holed out a wedge for eagle on the 16th hole, then finished with two big drives to set up easy birdies for a 10-under 63 on Friday to take a one-shot lead at Kapalua going into the weekend of the season-opening tournament.
His wedge on the 16th landed some 15 feet beyond the hole and took the grain toward the Pacific Ocean to trickle into the cup. He was excited, sure, but that was overdue. On two other holes, his full wedge came with inches of going in.
That’s no surprise. Garrigus, who has led the tour in driving distance each of the last two years, spent the bulk of his time after Thanksgiving working on his wedge game inside 100 yards. The work paid off quickly.
“My wedge game is exactly where I need it to be,” he said.
He was at 14-under 132 and had a one-shot lead over Carl Pettersson, who birdied the last hole for a 67. Jonathan Byrd also made birdie on the finishing hole of the Plantation Course for a 68 and was another shot back.
Garrigus, who qualified for this winners-only event in the final PGA Tour event of the year at Disney, spent his honeymoon on Maui and couldn’t wait to get back. This week is as relaxing as there is on tour, with only a 32-man field and no cut. It’s the first time Garrigus has teed it up with a guarantee of making money.
“I told everybody, ‘I’m not going to really be nervous unless I’m in the last group,'” Garrigus said. “Here we go.”
It’s the last few groups on the weekend that can put a little edge on this working vacation.
Ernie Els, who set the tournament record at Kapalua in 2003, got back into the mix with a 9-under 64. Steve Stricker didn’t make a bogey in calm conditions and shot a 67. Francesco Molinari of Italy recovered from a bogey-bogey start with eight birdies for a 67. FedEx Cup champion Jim Furyk had another 68.
All of them were only four shots behind.
“Everybody is jammed up there,” Stricker said. “If the weather stays like this, there’s going to be low scores. You’ve got to keep going.”
Also in the mix was Dustin Johnson, among seven players who had the lead at one point Friday. He ran off five straight birdies before trying to drive the 14th green, losing his ball into the native grass and taking double bogey.
“If I drive it straight, it definitely favors long hitters,” Johnson said.
Garrigus can go toe-to-toe with anyone off the tee, and he showed that coming in. He ripped a 392-yard drive on the 17th, a big number considering the lack of a strong wind, and stuffed his approach to about 6 feet. And on the 684-yard closing hole, he had a 5-iron for his second shot after a 394-yard drive.
For all his length, it’s hard to ignore the short aspects of his game.
He uses a 28-inch putter — he once left one in Tiger Woods’ locker to give to his daughter, Sam — to help on the greens. But the key has been the wedge game.
Garrigus, who blew a three-shot lead on the 18th hole and lost in a playoff at Memphis last year, was talking to swing coach Jim Ahern a few days before Disney when he was asked why he hadn’t performed better.
Garrigus told him wedge game was awful, or words to that effect. Ahern suggested he work on his wedges. It was really simple.
“That week of Disney, I had eight shots inside 100 yards and never had it outside 3 feet — and I made one,” Garrigus said. “So it’s hilarious to think that little amount of work I put in is paying dividends this big.”
He didn’t stop with Disney. He hit three bags of balls from inside 100 yards on the range after Thanksgiving, and he is growing more confident with each shot. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that two-time defending Geoff Ogilvy attributed his wins at Kapalua primarily to his wedge game.
Ogilvy isn’t back to defend because of 12 stitches in his finger. The tournament lost another player Friday when Camilo Villegas was disqualified because of a rules violation on Thursday that no one knew about until the first round was over. On his second chip that was coming back to his feet on the 15th, Villegas flicked away loose pieces of grass where the ball was headed.
It was a tough start to the year for the PGA Tour to lose two marquee players, although there are plenty to fill the void.
Els was disgusted after a three-putt bogey from 12 feet to end his first round. He put that behind him quickly, running off five birdies in a six-hole stretch, and hitting his best shot on the 15th with a 3-wood to the middle of the green that set up a two-putt birdie.
“I needed something like that to get me closer to the leaders,” Els said. “At least it got me back in the pack.”