The first full-field event of the 2013 season ended with a pair of rookies battling in Sunday's final group. The Tour will now swing to the continental U.S. for the Humana Challenge, but here's a look back in this week's Back 9.
No. 1 - Henley's hot putting -- Prior to the 2013 Sony Open, one of my Front 9 bullets focused on the rookies, and I specifically called out Russell Henley, the former Haskins Award winner at Georgia. The passing mention, however, did not predict that Henley would fire an astounding three rounds of 63 on his way to a convincing win in his first-ever PGA Tour start. He's the first player to win in his first event since 2001, rolling in birdies to outpace Tim Clark by three shots.
While Harris English was one of the top rookies to watch last year, it's his former teammate who picks up the first win. Henley was unconscious with his putter, finishing first in putting and strokes gained on his way to playing the par-4s at 17-under, best in the field. It was a thrilling week at Waialae for the rookie, and as he walked off the 18th green, it was clear he was overwhelmed with his accomplishment:
Henley: "I don't really know what just happened. It's the most nervous I've ever been, hardest thing I've ever done. Speechless right now."— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) January 14, 2013
It's an incredible start to a career, and Henley will now play in his home state in the season's first major at Augusta.
No. 2 - Tim Clark on the rebound -- The diminutive South African has battled elbow issues and inconsistency since he captured the 2010 PLAYERS, a career highlight for what was one of the Tour's most steady players. But the subsequent elbow surgery made Clark a bit of a forgotten man after winning the "5th major." Clark, however, appears to be rounding into his old form, and the layout at Waialae, with its tight fairways demanding precision off the tee, was a perfect fit for him.
Clark was sharp off the tee, and steady on the greens to post four rounds of 66 or lower. He simply ran up against the hottest golfer on the planet this week, which made his four straight birdies to finish out the tournament inconsequential. The second place finish, however, should have Clark feeling good about his game as the 2013 season begins.
No. 3 - Scott Langley's big debut-- Henley was not the only rookie this week who shot to the top of the Sony Open leaderboard, as Langley took up residence on the first page as well. But a rough Sunday playing in the final group with Henley resulted in a T3 finish at 17-under.
Langley is the first graduate of the First Tee program to earn a tour card, and all he did was start his PGA Tour career with an opening round 62. The month of January is an early testing ground for the rookies, and often a hot winter can dissipate into a listless summer. But both Langley and Henley are certainly the early pacesetters for their fellow first-year players.
No. 4 - Louis Oosthuizen -- It was apparently a good weekend for diminutive South Africans, as Oosthuizen joined Clark with an impressive four-day run. Louis has a swing that has long been the envy of his professional colleagues, and he'll be in contention at majors for years to come. That smooth swing carried him to victory at the Volvo Champions in Durban. The win shot him to No. 4 in the world, with only Rory, Tiger, and Luke Donald ranked ahead of him. Oosthuizen's dominating win at the British Open was far from a flash-in-the-pan, and he'll almost certainly be one of the favorites at Augusta this April.
No. 5 - Sick bay -- Beyond the nasty winds at Kapalua, it appears the biggest challenge the Tour pros faced in Hawaii was the flu. Bubba Watson was thrown off his game by a bug during the Hyundai ToC, and then Zach and Dustin Johnson were two of the bigger names to get hit at the Sony. Zach had to withdraw from the pro-am on Wednesday before giving it a go and playing alongside Dustin on Thursday and Friday. He missed the cut, while the illness forced Dustin to withdraw midway through his second round -- ruining his chances at consecutive victories.
No. 6 - Rory's new deal -- It was the worst kept secret in golf, but on Monday, Nike unveiled Rory McIlroy as its newest brand ambassador. The sponsorship deal will outfit Rory with the swoosh from head to toe, and mark every club in his bag. There was some speculation that he may stick with a Scotty Cameron putter, but he put that to rest in an Apple-esque keynote display in Abu Dhabi. He deflected a question about whether or not his contract stipulated that he could go back to a Cameron, but for now, it's all Nike.
No. 7 - Welcoming Rory -- It didn't take long for Nike to roll out an ad featuring their latest signee. During the presentation ceremony, Rory was welcomed by a host of Nike athletes, including Wayne Rooney, Roger Federer, and Tiger Woods. Rory and Tiger developed a friendship last season, and McIlroy's first ad with Nike features Woods prominently:
No. 8 - No Johnny Football -- The Bing Crosby Clambake -- or as it's now known, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am -- is fast approaching. It's one of the most unique events on Tour, with celebrities and athletes playing alongside the pros. In the past, sports-related amateurs like Bill Belichick, Matt Cain, and Tony Romo have all played. There was some speculation that 2012 Heisman winner and noted golf enthusiast Johnny Manziel would get the invite, but Brian Hewitt ended the speculation
Inviting Manziel, wrote Monterey Peninsula CEO Steve John in an e-mail to The Post, "actually was discussed amongst the Tournament committee but at that point the field was complete. I think he'll get solid consideration in the future; I understand he's got game."
But the Pebble Beach source said strict NCAA regulations also contributed to the tournament's decision to back off on Manziel. Apparently Manziel would have had to pay his own entry fee, typically close to $20,000 for amateurs, or run afoul of college sports' governing body.
No. 9 - Ryder Cup drama -- The PGA of America made the first move last month, reaching back for a surprise repeat captain and naming Tom Watson the American leader for 2014 at Gleneagles. Now, there's plenty of jockeying for the European captaincy, with Colin Montgomerie keeping his hat in the ring. It would be the second straight time Monty has captained the European side on that continent, prompting plenty of Euros to weigh in on the matter.
Jose Maria Olazabal, who captained the Euros to that stirring comeback win at Medinah, stated that the job should go to new blood. Rory McIlroy agreed, and tweeted his preference for Paul McGinley:
RC captaincy should be a 1 time thing... Everybody deserving gets their chance and moves on... Would love to play under Paul McGinley in '14— Rory Mcilroy (@McIlroyRory) January 13, 2013
Darren Clarke, Rory's fellow Northern Irishman, is expected to take his name out of the running. We should have a decision this week.