Despite Maui’s Waialae Country Club traditionally being a birdie-fest, last year’s Sony Open was decided largely by who could make pars. Journeyman Tom Hoge, the 54-hole leader, double-bogeyed 16 to fall behind late, while Patton Kizzire parred the final five holes to force a playoff with James Hahn, who – himself – closed with pars on Nos. 16, 17 and 18.
Kizzire would go on to win the playoff with a par on the sixth sudden death hole after Hahn made bogey.
“Neither one of us really grabbed it from the other. I kind of outlasted James,” said Kizzire at Tuesday’s press conference.
“I made a few big putts; he narrowly missed some winning putts; I had to make some big putts to stay in it. Maybe the biggest shot I had the whole playoff was on the first playoff hole. I got up and down from the bunker for par. Hit a great bunker shot to like this and he missed his birdie putt.”
The victory for the then 31-year-old Kizzire – an Auburn University product, seemed to elevate him to a different standing among the Tour’s best. It was his second victory in just four events, having outdueled Rickie Fowler in a 36-hole Sunday marathon in Mexico, and he showed incredible composure in the process, never wilting to the pressure.
Something happened, though, when he hit that Sony apex: The towering figure suddenly lost his game. Kizzire blamed his struggles on an inexperience with PGA Tour success.
“Well, the rest of the season wasn’t what I wanted. I think a little bit of expectations got me a little bit and started trying too hard, trying to change few things to get a little better to give myself more chances,” continued Kizzire.
“But it was all necessary, all part of the growing process. New opportunities and new things are sometimes difficult, and I didn’t handle them as well as I could.”
In his next two events, Kizzire would finish T42 and T31, respectively. Nothing spectacular, but at least he was playing on the weekend. That would not hold as he proceeded to miss six of his next seven cuts. And that one made-cut? That was at the limited-field, no-cut WGC-Mexico Championship.
As his driving and wedge game floundered, Kizzire made the Tour Championship by just the skin of his teeth, which seems crazy given the FedExCup point advantage he enjoyed for much of the season.
“After my second win on the Tour last year here, I was booming with confidence; and then there was the Ryder Cup (talk), there was the this, there was the that, all these new things that you start looking at and you get a little distracted,” said Kizzire, who moved to No. 1 on the money list and points list after winning in Honolulu last season.
“I think that was something that hurt me last year.”
However, coming into the new calendar year, there is hope again for Kizzire.
In his last start in the fall, Kizzire used a 63-66 weekend to finish a respectable T15 at the RSM Classic. Then after the December layoff, Kizzire notched his first top-10 since his Sony victory by placing T8 at last week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions. He had just five bogeys for the entire week and was one of the best putters at Kapalua.
“I’ve started handling myself a little bit better. Mentally my attitude has been a little bit better,” said Kizzire, who seeking to become the fifth back-to-back winner at the Sony. “Sometimes I’m on edge to start. I’m always on edge to start. I just get so excited to tee it up. More so than most people I believe. Just really gets me going. But I’ve been able to handle that a little better and not let it get me too riled up.”
Getting “riled up” may be a reason for his accuracy off the tees which is still a concern, but the way Waialae sets up, it should not be a death sentence in his championship defense.
One thing we do know, defending a title is not be something new to Kizzire.
“Yeah, it’s not brand new to me anymore. At the Mayakoba I felt like I handled it pretty well, especially the first few days,” boasted Kizzire, who found himself in second-place after two rounds of 65 and 66.
“The mind is an amazing thing. I go in there with no expectations, trying to have no expectations — I’m defending champ at Mayakoba so there are a bit — and played well. And bam, I’m right in there. I could win this thing again, and I didn’t handle it the best.
“If I get in that situation again this week I’ll be a little better.”