The 144 players who will tee it up in the first round of the Sony Open in Oahu, Hawaii on Thursday will get a breather from Dustin Johnson.
The world No. 1 is taking the week off after dominating the field at the Tournament of Champions to begin his 2018 schedule. In fact, only three of the top 20 players in the world golf rankings are in the field.
But the players know they will have to go low beginning with Thursday’s opening round to have any shot of being in contention come Sunday. The Waialae Country Club surrendered the third-most eagles on the PGA Tour last year, and Justin Thomas used an opening-round 59 to cruise to a seven-shot victory at 27-under.
He’s ready to defend his title, albeit with a new caddie. Jim “Bones” Mackay, who was on Phil Mickelson’s bag for 25 years, will put aside his microphone as an analyst to fill in for Thomas, whose regular caddie is sidelined by a foot injury.
Thomas’ good friend, Jordan Spieth, is also taking part in the second leg of the Hawaii swing. The No. 2-ranked Spieth rallied to finish in ninth place at 12-under in Maui after opening with a 3-over 75. He’s focused on picking up a victory — and some momentum — before returning stateside for the steady build up to the first major of the season at the Masters.
“My goal is very similar to the last couple of years, which is to focus on the major championships and try to be in contention to win on the weekend in at least a couple of those,” Spieth said. “This time of the season, these next really four or five events that I play, I’m not really thinking about the Masters or anything.
“Once we get into March, that’s where the real preparation starts.”
Spieth has two wins and nine top 10s in his last 11 starts worldwide, including seven consecutive top 10s entering this week.
“There’s goals within each kind of section of the season,” he said. “And in this section, it’s to try and win a tournament out of these next four or five events. And then, as we go into the Masters, then set a bar for March, April, May.”
Spieth finished third at the Sony Open last year, eight shots behind Thomas despite shooting four sub-68 rounds. That speaks to how low players will need to go in order to just stick around for the weekend, much less win.
“If you get it going, you can shoot a low score,” said Blayne Barber, who did not play in the event last year.
Twenty-two rookies and 73 winners on the PGA Tour are in the field, most teeing it up for the first time in 2018. That includes J.J. Henry, who will be making his 500th career Tour start.
“To say that you’ve played at this elite level for 18 straight years, and get a chance to compete against the best players in the world, to travel the world … it’s very humbling,” Henry said.
Few players enter the Sony Open playing more consistently than Australia’s Marc Leishman. He has risen to No. 12 in the world while posting four top 5s and six top 10s over his past seven starts worldwide.
He held the lead after the first round in Maui, but faltered during windy conditions in the third round and settled for a tie for seventh. Leishman made the hop over to Oahu looking to string together four consecutive solid rounds.
He has shot in the 60s in each of his past eight rounds at the par-70 course. Three years ago, he carded an 8-under 62, which is still tied for Leishman’s career-low on Tour. However, he has yet to finish higher than fifth place (2014).
“Confidence is pretty high, game’s in a good spot,” Leishman said after closing with at 67 last Sunday. “There’s no reason why I can’t go over there and put four good rounds together.”
–Derek Harper, Field Level Media