Jan
16
2015
Simpson, Kuchar and Thomas share Sony Open lead
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Belly putter, what? Who needs that crutch anymore (especially with the USGA ban on anchoring coming into effect in less than a year)? Not Webb Simpson! — the 2012 U.S. Open champion is using a conventional length putter for the first time on the PGA Tour at this week’s Sony Open and it’s working pretty well for him so far. At the halfway mark, Simpson is 12-under and tied for a three-way share of the lead with Matt Kuchar and rookie Justin Thomas.

Simpson actually *broke* his belly putter in half last fall, so that he couldn’t bring it with him to Japan, where he played in the Dunlop Phoenix.

“I kept thinking in my head, just go one more year with the belly putter, you’ve had a great last four years, made it to the TOUR Championship four years in a row, don’t change anything,” said Simpson. “I’m a big believer in not changing something that’s not broken. Yeah, so I felt myself kind of backing out, and I tried to justify it with, you know, all those things. I’m a great player, this and that, and then I’m like, no, I think I’m doing this because I’m fearful and not wanting to make the switch.

“In front of my wife I snapped (the belly putter) over my knee, and I was going to go throw it away, but she said, no, no, we’ve got to keep it. We’ve got to keep it. You’ve done a lot of good stuff with that. So the broken belly putter is in my trophy case at home. It’s on top.”

So, that’s the story.

Simpson didn’t have as smooth of a day as he did in the first round — and it’s tough to follow a career-low 62 — but managed to stay patient en route to a four-under 66 at Waialae Country Club.

“I was 1-over through 5 and playing with Matty (Kuchar) and he was playing great, so I was feeling myself wanting to press a little bit,” he said. “He was making birdies on the front. But I just tried to stay patient, and I did a good job of that, birdieing 6 and 9. The wind picked up a little bit, so it wasn’t easy out there.

“I know there were some good scores, but I didn’t think it was that easy. I managed to make a few putts coming in for birdie and kind of hang around where he was. He kind of kept making birdies, and my goal was to kind of stay with him if I could.”

It was tough to keep up with Kuchar on Friday, as he fired a bogey-free, seven-under 63 (and he didn’t even birdie the 18th!). Kuchar credited his success to hitting fairways and finding his rhythm on the greens at Waialae and welcomed the change in scenery compared to last week’s venue at Kapalua’s Plantation Course — the two are very different architecturally and visually.

“Today I really hit it well and continued to putt well,” he said. “I told people that coming from Kapalua, these greens are much friendlier to putt. I feel like I have really good chances to see the ball go in. Last week, I love Kapalua, but the amount of slope and the amount of grain in the greens is challenging. It’s challenging to make putts there. Here these greens are much flatter with much less grain and much less slope, and it seems like it’s a much easier place to make putts now.

“The biggest difference is you can make putts more easily here, but hitting fairways is a much tougher task here than it is over at Kapalua. Here hitting fairways is so critical, and today I did a very good job of that. There are a number of holes that can be extremely tough, that are tough holes, particularly finding the fairway, and if you don’t find the fairway, you’re struggling for pars. I found a lot of fairways today and was able to take a little more advantage. A hole can be taken advantage of when you’re in the fairway.”

The round of the day goes to 21-year-old Justin Thomas, who absolutely caught fire over his last 12 holes and shot a nine-under 61. He ended the day nicely, rolling in a 16-footer for eagle on no. 9 (he started on no. 10) to get to 12-under and earn a spot in the final threesome alongside Simpson and Kuchar for Saturday’s third round.

Thomas said he got into the greatest zone of his young career.

“It was really crazy,” he said. “It was probably the best zone and best focus I’ve ever been in. I knew I was playing well, but I really didn’t know how many under I was for the day, and I just kind of kept playing. It doesn’t happen very often in golf, and it’s really fun to happen. It’s probably maybe only the second time it’s ever happened to me, but I just was more focused on kind of the next shot kind of thing, and I wasn’t really too concerned about the future, but I did happen to look up and see 12 was leading, and I just tried to get it to – I was trying to get it to 9 or 10, just kind of get a little more reasonable, and obviously that finish was just a little bit of a bonus.”

The last time Thomas found himself in that kind of zone? He was eight years old.

“I played in a junior event, and I remember I just completely blacked out, and I don’t really remember how I got to where I was, but I had shot 8-under,” he recalled.

At the time of his press conference, Thomas wasn’t aware that the Tour would pair the players in threesomes for the third round, as more than 78 players made the cut. He was disappointed when he thought he hadn’t — even though some people would prefer playing in the penultimate group because there would be less pressure.

“I would hopefully achieve that at some point (playing in the final group), so I think the faster it happens, the better it’s going to be for me,” said Thomas. “Like I said, that’s why I left (college) when I did and why I’ve done everything I’ve done, to put myself – I’ve expected myself to be there as fast as I can. I was bummed when I found out I wasn’t going to be.

“I understand what you’re saying, that some people would maybe want to be one back as opposed to tied or second to last group as opposed to last group, but I want to be right there, and I want to be in the heat of it.”

I like his attitude. This marks the first time Thomas has held the lead/co-lead after 36 holes on the PGA Tour.

Thomas made his way onto the PGA Tour this season by finishing 5th on the 2014 Web.com Tour priority list. On that Tour last season, he secured seven top-10 finishes, highlighted by a win at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship. For the 2014-15 PGA Tour season, he’s making his sixth start, with his best finish so far being T4 at the Sanderson Farms Championship last October.

Thomas isn’t sure how his body will react to the pressure and adrenaline of playing in contention on Saturday, but he knows one thing that he learned on the Web.com Tour last season and that’s to stay patient.

“I think last year was a very, very big and important year for me,” he said. “I learned a lot, and I learned how to win fortunately, and obviously it only happened once, but I put my body and put my game in that position and I kind of knew how it felt. Obviously it may feel a little different out here, and I’m hoping to figure out what that’s like come two days from now. But I think it’s just try to get in contention and get in those positions as many times as I can this year and just try to learn from those as often as I can.”

While his name is at the top of the leaderboard along with veterans like Kuchar and Simpson, Thomas doesn’t seem too fazed.

“Hopefully not very hard,” he said when asked how difficult it will be to stay patient. “Obviously it’s easier now to sit here and say that and then I’ll be out there tomorrow and feeling some different things. But I’m excited. It’s why I turned pro early. It’s why I am playing golf for a living. It’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. If I didn’t want to be in those positions I would have never made all the decisions I’ve made, and hopefully I’ll learn something, but then again, continue to play well and keep myself in the tournament.”

Meanwhile, 16-year-old Kyle Suppa, the Honolulu local favorite, posted a two-under 36-hole total, which was good enough to make the cut on the number. Kids, these days!