KAILUA-KONA — David Toms showed up for his second round at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship only to find out a limbo game had broken out at Hualalai.
With perfect conditions for the early part of the afternoon, it was all about getting low early Friday at the PGA Tour Champions season-opening event on the Big Island.
Those who teed off early supplied a hefty serving of birdies to cause a logjam on the leaderboard. By the time Toms teed off in the final grouping with first round co-leader Joe Durant, 20 players were within two strokes of the lead.
But even with an increased degree of difficulty thanks to some uncooperative afternoon wind, Toms was game for the task, carding a second consecutive round of 7-under par 65 to build a four-stroke lead heading into the final day of the 54-hole tournament.
“It was a tougher day,” Toms said. “The only time I’ve seen the wind that direction was the day we got canceled a couple years ago, so I never really played the golf course with that wind direction. Made it a little tougher to pull clubs and everything, but to shoot 7-under today, I felt like I played really, really well.”
Tom Lehman and Durant are tied for second at 10-under, four shots off of Toms. Defending champion Jerry Kelly and Bernhard Langer — the only three-time champion at Hualalai — are an additional stroke back at 9-under along with Colin Montgomerie.
Toms didn’t waste any time building on his lead, notching birdies on three of the first four holes. He recorded his first bogey of the tournament on No 15, but closed out his round with a birdie — one of only four made on the final hole during the round.
“I’m always hungry for (a win), but I just have to go out and shoot another low round,” Toms said. “Obviously if conditions are better tomorrow, somebody’s going to shoot really low and it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.”
The chase pack behind Toms includes many players that have had outstanding recent success at Hualalai.
Langer is the most decorated golfer at the Big Island course, winning in 2017, ‘14 and ‘09. He also carries the weight of eight PGA Tour Champions player of the year honors, including the last five consecutively.
After an up-and-down first round that included two eagles and four bogeys, Langer was in the running for low round of the day until a bogey on No. 16.
He settled for a 65, which still put him firmly in firm position to make a run at the title.
“Made a lot of medium putts, which is nice. Can’t take those for granted,” Langer said. “Kept the ball in play, no lava excursions.”
Lehman has a long history on the Big Island, playing in the tournament all but one year since 2010. He’s finished runner-up twice, including a 2011 finish where he shot 20-under par but still watched John Cook walk away with the title.
“It’s really a matter of whether the putts go in or not,” Lehman said. “With the wind blowing, it does create a bunch more challenges. As you’ve seen through the years, a lot of times it’s simply a putting contest and whoever makes the most wins. When they start to drop and the confidence starts, so you are a little bit and you start feeling like you’re going to make them all. Then you can shoot low scores and you have good tournaments. Other times you hit great putts and nothing goes in and you feel like you played well and you finished 20th. That’s kind of the nature of the game here.”
Despite finishing with the same score, Kelly and Montgomerie won’t be playing in the same group in the final round for a second consecutive year.
Last year, Kelly nailed an 18-foot birdie putt, while Montgomerie missed a 6-footer for par, allowing Kelly to claim the title in one of the most thrilling finishes in tournament history.
The highlight of the bogey-free round for Kelly was an eagle on No. 4, which added a little extra boost to his tournament best round of 8-under.
“That hole has got me the last bunch of years,” Kelly said. “Another terrible par there yesterday just trying to two putt from 40-feet. So to get one to stop at that pin placement, that was really fun. Rolled in. It was only about a 5-6 footer.”
Kelly might have got an additional boost from his course companions, which included Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and former NASCAR driver Danica Patrick. The duo followed him for the majority of the day and Rodgers celebrated with Kelly when he nailed his eagle.
Kelly — a Wisconsin native — turned around after making the putt and did Rodgers’ patented championship belt celebration.
“I like bringing a little football atmosphere to golf. You know, just trying to keep up with his game and what he can do,” Kelly said. “It’s really cool. It just shows the kind of friend he is to stop by.”
In the 35-year history of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai, the player — or players — who are leading or tied for the lead after 36 holes have gone on to win the tournament 25 times, including each of the last five years: Jerry Kelly (2018), Bernhard Langer (2017, 2014), Duffy Waldorf (2016) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (2015).
Rough ride in
In past years, the final stretch of holes have served as a feeding frenzy of sorts for players looking to make up ground. But challenging pin placements combined with some uncharacteristic wind made it a rough stretch.
Holes No. 15 and 16 were tied for the fourth toughest of the afternoon, while the par-3 17 did not give up a birdie, making it the toughest hole of the day.
No. 18 was no pushover either, ranking as the third toughest of the round.
Couples in it
Fred Couples overcame an opening-round 72 with a second-round 66 to move 17 spots up the leaderboard into a tie for 13th. Entering the day, the World Golf Hall of Fame member had recorded second-round scores of par or worse in his last five PGA Tour Champions starts.
Couples has never won at Hualalai but has finished runner-up three times and has one solo-third-place effort. With $982,500 in career earnings at the event, he is the highest-ranked player on the tournament’s all-time money list without a victory (fifth). The only players ahead of him are Langer, Hale Irwin, Tom Watson and Dana Quigley.