BlogPrelude for Sony Open in Hawaii

By Sal Johnson

Rahm wins the Sentry, but Morikawa can see the light

One of the scariest things in golf has to be leading from the start and accumulating a big lead going into the final round. For Collin Morikawa, that was the case when he birdied four of his last five holes on Saturday. That gave Morikawa a six-shot lead going into the final round. Morikawa was looking to start the year on a good note after struggling a bit in the previous two years. Sure it’s hard to say someone was struggling when he finished 21st in the FedExCup standings, but for Morikawa, the PGA Tour is about winning, and he has been winless since the 2021 British Open. Since Morikawa turned pro in 2019, he always was the can’t-miss kid. When he turned pro after finishing his college career, Collin could play on the PGA Tour thanks to sponsor invites (along with qualifying for the U.S. Open). He became a PGA Tour member when he won the Barracuda Championship on his sixth start. The following year Morikawa won twice, including winning the PGA Championship the first time he played in it. He followed that up by winning the British Open, again on his first try in that championship, and just like that, Morikawa gained legends status. Unfortunately, Morikawa had this one little secret, which was his putting. When Morikawa putted well, he would win, but his putting was inconsistent. Frankly, Morikawa was not a very good putter. In 2019, he was 99th in Strokes Gained putting, and in 2020 128th. In 2021 he was 178th and 131st last year. When things didn’t get any better at the start of the 2023 season, Morikawa decided to get some help. At Mayakoba, Morikawa began working with putting guru Stephen Sweeney, and they developed a particular drill. Morikawa went from the Saw Putting grip back to the conventional putting grip. Before each putt, Morikawa would get into position and open his hands on either side of the grip, so his palms opposed each other. The thought was to get his forearms aligned with the putter shaft so that at impact, his putter would be square to the line to the hole. Over the December break, Morikawa worked to make the technique routine, and then Sweeney added a new thought to help Morikawa focus on sped control. With intense practice, Morikawa made the stroke more routine and, with a new putter, headed to Kapalua. He had one of his best-putting rounds in the first round while shooting 64. Morikawa gained more strokes with his putter (1.662) than any other club in his bag. Things got better in the second and third rounds as Morikawa shot 66 and 65. He was bogey-free in the first three rounds and continued the streak until his first bogey at 14 on Sunday. He followed that with bogeys at 15 and 16. Despite having a six-shot lead, Morikawa had one person hotter than ever. For Jon Rahm, he started the final round seven back, and when Rahm made a bogey at one and Morikawa made a birdie, Rahm was nine shots back. But Rahm made birdies at 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 12, 13, and 14 before making an eagle at 15. After the birdie at 13, Rahm was 4 back. But when Rahm went birdie-eagle on 14 and 15, Morikawa made bogeys. Rahm made up five shots in those two holes and led by a shot. Morikawa didn’t help himself with a bogey at 16 and even with a birdie at 18, lost by two shots. So for the eighth time on the PGA Tour, a player who led by six going into the final round lost the tournament. So Morikawa joins a list that has some great players on it. Scottie Scheffler lost the 2022 Tour Championship, Dustin Johnson lost a six-shot lead to lose the 2017 WGC-HSBC Champions. Sergio Garcia also blew a six-shot lead, and we all remember how Greg Norman blew a six-shot lead at the 1996 Masters to lose to Nick Faldo. So for Morikawa, he has to take the thought that he knows how to putt better. Sure Morikawa fell apart on the final five holes, but he is a good enough player that we will have to watch in the future. For Collin, his next start will be the Farmers Open. As for Jon Rahm, he has found his karma of late. Since the FedEx St. Jude Championship in August, Rahm has won three times in nine starts and been in the top ten in all but one event. We know that Rahm is outstanding and one of the most consistent players on tour. Despite last year when he struggled with his swing, he had found his game, and fair warning for all, Rahm could go on a big streak. He will play in two weeks at the American Express and then the following week at Torrey Pines, a place he has won before in the Farmers.

Those that have made equipment changes for 2023

The start of the year always brings changes for players, from new swing coaches to new equipment deals. For Sentry winner Jon Rahm, he had in his bag a new driver, 3-wood, and 5-wood. He and Xander Schauffele are using new woods that Callaway is introducing, the Paradym clubs. The clubs will help redistribute weight and give new ways to tailor these clubs for the players’ benefit.

Patrick Cantlay showed up to Maui with a logo-free golf bag. Cantlay used to be sponsored by Titleist and wore Hugo Boss apparel, but now they are no longer his sponsors. Cantlay still has a deal with Titleist for balls, shoes, and gloves but will not be on Titleist staff. Despite the change, Cantlay is still playing Titleist clubs. One reason for the change could be the possibility of Cantlay joining LIV Golf, but Cantlay put down those rumors saying he would not move to LIV Golf. Cantlay was playing in the Sentry TofC for the fifth time, and in his previous starts, he never finished worst than T-15th. It took rounds of 66-68 over the weekend for Cantlay to finish T-16th, a big disappointment for those who backed him this week. Cantlay’s next start will be the American Express, where he was runner-up in 2021 and 9th last year.

Sungjae Im and Tom Kim switched their putter grips to a new Zynergy SuperStroke grip, which is wider and will help keep the wrist firm during the stroke and not bring it down. For Kim, he finished T-5th, five back of winner Rahm and for Im, and he finished T-13th.

Justin Thomas is not shy about changing putters as he showed up to Kapalua with a new or, should we say old friend. 2022 was a year of change as Thomas seemed to change putters on a weekly basis. But at Kapalua, he was back to an old friend, a Scotty Cameron blade putter he started using in middle school. He hasn’t used the putter since college. But the putter didn’t seem to work as Thomas, who has won twice at the Sentry and finished 3rd twice, had his worst finish in 8 Sentry starts, a T-25th. In putting, Thomas was 27th in Strokes Gained Putting as he was 25th in putting inside ten feet, making 61 of 70 putts in that range. Now we have to give Thomas a break since he got married in November in a ceremony in which Jordan Spieth was the best man. Still, we have to think that the next time Thomas plays in Phoenix, he will probably have a new putter.

For Patrick Fitzpatrick, he showed up with something new on his clubs. He plays with a mismatch of clubs between a Titleist driver, Ping 3-woods, 7-woods, irons, and Titleist wedges. Fitzpatrick added eight grams of weight onto the grips of his irons, with the thought of stopping his hands from over-rotating. The idea came from Jack Nicklaus, with who Fitzpatrick has been hanging out of late in Jupiter, Florida. The change seemed to work as he shot 66-69-66 and was in the last pairing with Colin Morikawa on Sunday. But Fitzpatrick struggled in the final round shooting 70, dropping down into a T-5th. Matt had a breakout year in 2022, winning the U.S. Open and finishing in the top six in nine of his 24 starts. Matt will take a three-week break before starting a long run of tournaments at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-AM in February.

Will Zalatoris

One of the best young players on the PGA Tour is Will Zalatoris. This will be his third season on the PGA Tour. In 2020 he got to the U.S. Open, finishing T-6th. He was the best player on the Korn Ferry Tour and looked like he would get his PGA Tour card for the 2021 season. But when Covid hit, things changed. The Korn Ferry Tour decided to add the 2021 season to 2020, and just like that, Zalatoris would have to wait another year to get on the PGA Tour.
When Zalatoris ended his amateur career in 2018, forgoing his final semester at Wake Forest, everyone thought he had the game, but his putter was always his Achilles heel. In his first year on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2019, his ball striking was terrific, but poor putting held him back. He switched to the arm-lock approach used by Bryson DeChambeau and fellow Wake Forest alum Webb Simpson and finally found a stroke he believed in. Zalatoris also worked with swing coach Troy Denton and short-game coach Josh Gregory, refining his game and using ideas that combine strokes-gained data with course management. With that, his game blossomed in 2020.
Still, the disappointment was that he couldn’t get to the PGA Tour until the 2022 season. But Zalatoris took advantage of an invite to the U.S. Open as the top points leader on the Korn Ferry Tour. When he teed it up at Winged Foot, he was 119th in the Official World Ranking. To show how dramatic his rise was, at the start of 2019, Zalatoris was 2,006th in the Official World Golf Ranking. At the beginning of 2020, Zalatoris was 672nd and, finishing at the U.S. Open, climbed to 76th. His T-6th at Winged Foot earned a spot in the following week’s Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship. He made the cut on the number at Corales and went on to shoot 65 in the final round, which lifted him to T-8th. That got him into the Sanderson Farms Championship, but he missed the cut. He was given a sponsor exemption into the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and finished T-5th, four shots back of the Martin Laird/Austin Cook/Matthew Wolff playoff. That top-10 got him into the Bermuda Championship, and when he finished T-16th, it earned him special temporary membership on the PGA Tour. With this, he made non-member FedExCup points and was a shoo-in to earn his PGA Tour card for 2022. Zalatoris remained technically a member of the Korn Ferry Tour, though he played on the PGA Tour. After his excellent finish at Winged Foot, Zalatoris never played again on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Zalatoris finished 2021, winning $3.5 million and had enough non-member FedExCup points to earn full-time membership for the 2022 season. Last year was special because he had nine top-ten finishes, including runner-up finishes at the Farmers Insurance, PGA Championship, and U.S. Open. He was on the cusp of victory many times. He lost a playoff at the Farmers and PGA Championship. On top of those finishes, he was T-6th at the Masters and T-28th at the British Open, not a bad run in the majors. The reason he wasn’t a winner was his putting. Even with the change to the arm-lock approach, he was 120th in Strokes Gained putting after the Wyndham Championship. It didn’t matter that he was 1st in Strokes Gained Approach the green and 2nd in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green. He still was 188th in putting inside ten feet, which was why he couldn’t win. At the FedEx St. Jude Championship, the first playoff event Zalatoris was supreme from tee to green, but his putting was better. He was 25th that week in Strokes Gained Putting and his putting inside 10 feet was T-36th. Zalatoris got into his third playoff of the year and, despite some challenging moments on the third hole of the playoff, was able to beat Sepp Straka. With his first win, he also led the FedExCup into the second playoff event, the BMW Championship.
But at Wilmington, Zalatoris tweaked his back during the third round, and with the pain not subsiding, he was forced to withdraw. Zalatoris’s season was over. He couldn’t make another start and, because of the injury, finished 30th in the FedExCup standings. He suffered two herniated discs in his back and was told he had to rest the injury. He couldn’t play in the Presidents Cup and what he thought would be 12 weeks turned into a four-month wait. Zalatoris explained the issue as more of a motor pattern problem, not structural. So Zalatoris consulted with Dr. Greg Rose at the Titleist Performance Institute to evaluate how he swung and make necessary changes to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. He had to make changes so that he wouldn’t push off his right side and make more of a turn than a lateral shift. He also changed his driver to shorten it by an inch and a quarter, which will help him turn more. Zalatoris has suffered back pain problems for the past two years, and the hope is that the new regimen will end the back problems. Zalatoris started hitting balls and playing on December 1st, making the changes. Zalatoris feels he can take the injury and turn it positive. His minor swing changes and the shortened driver have turned into more clubhead speed. With the time off, Zalatoris could relax and, in December, married his college sweetheart Caitlin and Kapalua is turning into a honeymoon.
So the Sentry Tournament of Champions was his first event back in 138 days. In the first round, Zalatoris hit a perfect tee shot off the first tee but hit a terrible second shot and started the year, missing a five-footer for par. That would be Zalatoris’ only bogey of the day as he shot a first-round 69. He added 69s in the second and third rounds but found some magic in the final round shooting an 8 under-par 65. For the week, Zalatoris hit 37 of 60 fairways and was T-7th, hitting 61 of 72 greens. Putting was a bit better as he was 13th in Strokes Gained Putting as he made 63 of 68 putts inside ten feet. Zalatoris had a good week making 24 birdies, and for him playing at Kapalua for the first time, not a bad way to begin 2023. Will is taking next week off and will return to the American Express and then the next week return to Torrey Pines and the Farmers, the event he was runner-up in last year, losing a playoff to Luke List.

Injury for Xander

Xander Schauffele has played on the PGA Tour since 2017 and last year was probably his best year on tour. He won three times and had one of his best years on tour, finishing 4th in the FedExCup race and winning $7.4 million. After finishing T-9th at the Zozo Championship and 4th at the Hero World Challenge, Schauffele was looking forward to the Sentry Tournament of Champions, an event he won in 2019 and lost in a playoff the following year.
At the Hero World Challenge last month in the Bahamas, for the first time in his career, his back started hurting him. He withdrew from the pro-am after resting that day and got better. He shot 72-68-69-68 and finished 4th, and everything seem to be ok. So Schauffele forgot about it. But when he arrived in Maui, that back started to give him problems, and he could not play in the Pro-am. This time around, the one-day rest didn’t help, and in the first round, it felt worst when he swung. He gutted out a 70, but the pain was getting worst, and the pain started affecting his swing speed. In the second round, it wasn’t getting any better, and caddie Austin Kaiser told him that it wasn’t worth gutting it out anymore and possibly hurting himself more. After withdrawing, he told reporters that he regretted not getting it checked out after the Bahamas and has an MRI scheduled for his arrival home.
Looking back, the injury happened while he was working out in the Bahamas. Even though the pain is manageable, at Kapalua, he was flinching on drives and not hitting his irons solidly.
Schauffele is frustrated that it happened where he has had so much success, but withdrawing was the right thing to do. He had a heavy west coast swing planned, playing in the American Express, Farmers Insurance, WM Phoenix, and Genesis in Los Angeles.

Tom Hoge saga

Have to love what Tom Hoge is going through to live a piece of his college days. Hoge, who has played on the PGA Tour since 2015, struggled in his first five years before getting things going in 2020. Since then, he has found a lot of success. His first PGA Tour victory came last year at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-am. Now, of Hoge’s 24 career PGA Tour top-tens, seven have come on courses that are by an ocean. Not only was his AT&T Pebble victory on the Pacific, he was also 3rd at the 2018 Sony Open in Hawaii and T-3rd at the 2021 Mayakoba Golf Classic. So we can tell that Hoge has this special relationship for playing ocean courses, and when he won the AT&T, he could add the Sentry Tournament of Champions onto that list. Hoge took advantage of that start by finishing T-3rd in his first Sentry start. Hoge was always going to play in the Sony Open in Hawaii, one of his favorite events. But when his college school TCU beat Ohio State to get a spot in the National Championship game in Los Angeles the Monday after Sentry, this perk Hoge’s interest. So the TCU graduate desperately wanted to see his Horned Frogs win the national championship in person. As he told the media, there was no way I could miss the game, but at the same time, he couldn’t think of missing out on the Sony Open. Thanks to modern technology, Hoge will be able to do everything. After play at Kapalua, it was off to Kahului Airport for a Red-eye flight to Los Angeles. Hopefully, he will be able to get a nap on the flight over and even have a few hours of sleep before the 4:30 start of the game. Then after a good night’s sleep, he will catch a 9 am flight to Honolulu and hopefully will be able to play some holes at Waialae. According to Dave Shedloski of Golf Digest, he plunked down $945 for a prime seat on the 30 yard-line in the TCU section of SoFi Stadium. So the week has gotten off to a great start, with Hoge finishing T-3rd at the Sentry. A win by the Horned Frogs could be completed with a win at the Sony Open. Hopefully, Hoge won’t have to experience the horrors of flying that people around the nation experienced over Christmas.


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