KAPALUA, Hawaii – All it took was one round for the new year to feel like the end of last season on the PGA Tour.
Cameron Smith of Australia opened the Sentry Tournament of Champions with a pair of long eagle putts and to offset an early bogey for an 8-under 65 and a one-shot lead at Kapalua.
For the rest of the warm, gorgeous afternoon, the focus quickly shifted to the two players golf hasn’t seen in quite some time.
Patrick Cantlay, who last competed on Sunday at the Ryder Cup on Sept. 26, seized on the scoring holes and the soft conditions and started running off birdies and one eagle. He had to settle for par on the par-5 18th hole and posted a 7-under 66.
Not bad for his first competition in 102 days.
Jon Rahm, who was in dire need of a break from a chaotic 16 months of majors and parenthood and COVID-19, was bogey-free and still mildly irritated by the pair of birdie putts he left short on the par 5s. He also had 66.
They were the leading contenders for the FedEx Cup last year, when Cantlay closed with a superb 6-iron for birdie on the final hole and a one-shot win at the Tour Championship, giving him the $15 million and ultimately PGA Tour player of the year.
They will be paired Friday.
“Again,” Cantlay said with a smile.
There was plenty of good golf, and attribute that to day in paradise that felt and looked like one. The sun was blazing. A few humpback whales were breaching. The wind was not raging. The Plantation Course was soft from rain. Scoring was simply ideal.
Twenty-two players from the 38-man field of PGA Tour winners broke 70. Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed, both at 74, were the only players who didn’t break par.
But while everyone had a holiday break — that mean more fishing than golf for Smith while at his U.S. base in north Florida — Cantlay and Rahm seemed to have been gone forever.
It just didn’t look that way.
“I still think I’m a little rusty and I saw that in my start,” said Cantlay, who missed the first green and saw his chip run with the grain some 12 feet by the hole. “I got away with a couple of loose swings and one flier on the sixth hole where I was able to make a par, but maybe shouldn’t have.”
His shot sailed well over the green, some 40 yards away. He chopped that out to 8 feet for an unlikely par, had a two-putt par from 70 feet, saved par from the rough on the par-3 eighth. He was holding it together.
And then really got on a roll on the back nine,” Cantlay said.
It started with the 13th hole and a birdie, and while Cantlay missed a good chance at birdie on the 18th that would have tied Smith for the lead, he still played the final six holes in 6-under par. The big shot was a 35-foot eagle putt on No. 15. The most pleasing was a full pitching wedge over the ravine to a front pin on the picturesque 17th.
Rahm was a lot cleaner, playing bogey-free. He ran off three straight birdies on the front nine and then got hot, as Cantlay did, on the closing six holes.
Rahm finished with a long two-putt birdie in his first round in 83 days.
“You can always expect a little bit of rust,” Rahm said. “I took time off, but I wasn’t on the couch doing nothing. I was still working out. I was still practicing as if I was still in the season. I took maybe three weeks off of golf, which were very needed. But even though I was home, I was practicing.
“Again, not that I’m surprised that I played good, but it’s really good to come out and start the year off the right way.”
Throw Daniel Berger into that category. He joined Cantlay and Rahm just one shot off the lead.
Berger, who had to reconfigure a caddie’s clubs to practice earlier in the week when his golf bag was delayed two days, also opened with a 66.
Berger also went missing after the Ryder Cup, turning up in the Bahamas with plenty of rust and no lack of belief. He practiced a little bit more in the week before Kapalua, only to show up on Maui with his golf clubs nowhere to be found.
He had them two days later — Berger borrowed the clubs of caddie Brett Waldman, and even took the liberty of changing the lies and lofts on the irons — and didn't miss a beat.
His only lapse was a long three-putt that was down the slope but into the grain on the 17th, though he atoned for that with a birdie on the last. Players could reach the 663-yard closing hole with a long iron in fast conditions last year. Berger couldn't get home with a 3-wood.
He was no less pleased and it was hard for anyone to be terribly upset given the location. Never mind that he still isn't sure which island is Lanai and which is Molokai as he gazes out toward the ocean.
“I’m not good with islands. There’s too many of them,” Berger said. “I know we’re in Maui.”