When 24 of the best players on the PGA Tour get together in an environment that encourages freewheeling — given their talent — the golf course doesn’t stand much of a chance. And that’s what happened Friday at the Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida.
The result was that three teams ended up tied for the first-round lead after shooting 8-under 64 in the Modified Alternate Shot format. It’s modified because rather than alternating tee shots, both players hit a tee shot on each hole and then they choose the optimum one. Then they alternate from there.
Those three really distinguished themselves because their lead is three strokes. Here are Friday’s stars:
- Sean O’Hair and Kenny Perry (Defending Champions)
- Harris English and Matt Kuchar
- Charles Howell III and Justin Leonard
What distinguished them was that each had a player who was very long off the tee (the first player listed in each pair) and each had a player who could hit very accurate tee shots (the second player listed). So Perry, Kuchar and Leonard would each tee off first to get it safely in play and then O’Hair, English and Howell would slug it as far as they could. A lot of fireworks when they get to do that:
Kenny Perry: Well, when [O’Hair] hits it 350 and I hit it 290, it’s a pretty easy to figure my role out.
Sean O’Hair: [Perry] just frees me up off the tee. I mean, I don’t play like that where when I tee it up at a regular TOUR event I’m not swinging nearly as hard as I am off the tee now, but when he’s down the middle 290 every time, why not? It’s kind of fun, it’s easy for me.
The thing that was surprising about this is that as Perry was transitioning over to the Champions Tour, he was still known as a long driver of the ball. And over on the Champions Tour, he’s 4th in Driving Distance at 287.5 yards (Couples leads at 296.7). But he’s a piker compared to these three guys. On the Tour, English is 36th at 294.3 and Howell is 20th at 301.4. Keep in mind that these are averages and probably stunted by the number of 3-woods the longest players strategically play these days.
But as Harris English points out, Alternate Shot is not without it’s drawbacks:
I haven’t played alternate shot since the Walker Cup in 2011. It’s just a weird — the first couple holes it was hard to get into it. I didn’t have a whole lot of rhythm. Putting, you go a couple holes without putting or hitting a wedge shot, it’s just a different type of game.
And Kuchar talked about how much he enjoyed hitting approach shots from a lot closer that he normally does:
There were a lot of times today in this alternate shot format where it feels like a bit of a scramble off the tee. You get to go ahead and bust it, it’s not a true alternate shot, so there’s a lot of times I was able to find the fairway and Harris would just splash it by and it would be a given.
Like the last hole he was 30, 40 by me on the last hole and I had an easy wedge shot in, you know, felt like the strategy’s not the same as it is in true alternate shot where you’ve got to pick odds or evens and try to figure out who may be the better driver on certain holes and who may be the better putter on certain holes.
It wasn’t that, it was just kind of let me put it in the fairway, let Harris hit a bomb and go figure out how short of a club I get to hit in.
Because Howell is so long and Leonard is so consistent, they figured it out quickly and were rewarded:
Well, today we chose Justin to hit first and that was great for me because he drove it in the fairway every time and I could swing away at it. The golf course, it still has a few shots out there where you have to suck it up and hit a shot. It’s still an alternate shot format, it can get away from you a little bit. Justin hit a lot of fantastic irons and wedges and we got the momentum going.
And Leonard liked it too:
You know, it was fun being able to hit Charles’ tee ball today. You know, I need to go to the putting green and work a little bit on my putting because I didn’t putt. Charles made a bunch of putts [off of my approach shots]. I had a couple tap-ins, but for the most part he made most everything.
Being able to play from where he was driving it today was really fun for me. It’s something that I don’t get to experience very often unless I’m playing in a pro-am and playing an up tee. So to be able to hit so many wedges on this golf course was fun and we were able to take advantage of it.
The 4th place team was Retief Goosen and Freddie Jacobsen, which was a little surprising given that Goosen is working his way back from a Major Medical Extension after a back operation. He withdrew from The Players Championship back in May, missed the cut when he came back for the Frys.com in mid-October and then finished T47 and T65 in the two cuts he did make.
Enjoying this kind of success today in a team situation is the kind of feelgood experience that can light a fire in a player. Over on the LPGA, Gerina Piller was playing well enough to get picked for the Solheim Cup, but climbing the rungs slowly. After the Solheim Cup, she saw herself in a totally different light and finished 2nd in the last tournament of the year, the Titleholders. Hopefully Goosen will have that same kind of experience because he’s a classy player that we can learn a lot from watching.
Two teams were T5, Chris Dimarco and Billy Horschel (the University of Florida team) and Jason Dufner and Dustin Johnson (most people’s pick at the beginning of the week). And with these guys 4 shots back with massive birdie formats to follow, they’ll have to kick it into super massive birdie gear.
The rest of the field should be able to jockey for higher position if not the win:
7. Rory Sabbatini and Scott Verplank – 3-under. This is a good outcome given that Verplank is coming back from his Major Medical Extension.
8. Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood – 2-under. This is a bit of a surprise because you would expect a bit of the Ryder Cup camaraderie to boost the “English Team” higher. Maybe the fact that they were “miked” for television prevented them from communicating as freely as they normally would.
9. Jerry Kelly and Steve Stricker. The guys from the frozen North may have accumulated a little rust hunting in the snowy woods.
T10. Mark Calcavecchia and Chad Campbell. This isn’t too big a surprise with Campbell not playing well of late. But with Calc whacking it like he was still on the PGA Tour, there may be hope for improvement. He’s actually intending to play a larger Tour schedule in 2014.
T10. Jonas Blixt and Greg Norman. This too is not a big surprise with Norman not playing much competitive golf and Blixt a tad starry-eyed playing with his father’s hero.
12. Graham DeLaet and Mike Weir. Hard to know because we didn’t see a lot of them, but the “Canadian Team” seems to be dealing with a little rust too.
The first tee time is 9:45 AM (ET) with the Golf Channel picking it up at 1 PM for an hour and NBC taking the baton at 2:00 PM for the two-hour finish.