‘An honor’: Morikawa opens tour season in Maui

KAPALUA, Hawaii — Collin Morikawa already has won two majors and played in the opening session twice in the Ryder Cup. His opening tee shot Thursday at Kapalua felt as special as any moment.

Long before Sahith Theegala rolled in his 10th birdie for a 9-under 64 to lead The Sentry, the PGA Tour began a new year with a ceremony on the first tee. It featured a Hawaiian blessing and chants geared toward renewal and regrowth, with emphasis on the deadly Lahaina fires.

Morikawa has a deep connection to Maui and hit the opening tee shot.

Where it went — straight and so long it rolled through the fairway into the rough — was of little importance to him.

“As special as it’s ever going to get,” Morikawa said of the first of his 65 shots on Thursday. “I can talk about final rounds, last shots, first tee, final group and those in the majors, but that was as big of an honor as I could have had. Not because it was the first tournament of the year, but because it was out here in Maui, everything that this week represents for me.

“It just means that much more.”

He played like it meant more, with six birdies and one eagle when he carved a 3-wood up to the elevated green for eagle on the par-5 ninth.

On this glorious day of surprisingly little wind and typical magnificent views, Morikawa had plenty of company. His 65 was the best of the day until Theegala warmed up, starting the back nine with six straight birdies. He got up-and-down on the par-5 18th for one last birdie.

That gave him a one-shot lead over Morikawa, FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland, Sungjae Im, Camilo Villegas and Jason Day.

Theegala made his Kapalua debut last year by reaching the Tour Championship as a rookie. Now the field at The Sentry — for years limited only to PGA Tour winners from the previous year — has been expanded to winners and the top 50 in the FedEx Cup. Theegala would be there no matter what, thanks to his win in Napa, California, in September.

The 59-player field is the largest ever for Kapalua, and they all had their way on a forgiving Plantation course missing its great defense with only a tropical breeze.

Theegala still had to work — an 18-foot putt on No. 10, a tee shot to 2 feet on the par-3 11th, and then his favorite, a 10-foot birdie on a 12th hole with so much slope and grain he wasn’t sure how the putt was going to break.

“I just aimed it dead center and tried to hit it hard,” he said. “That settled me down a little bit more, because I knew 13, 14, 15 were very gettable, too.”

And he got them, capping his streak with a two-putt birdie from 20 feet on the par-5 15th.

It felt that way for everyone.

Eighteen players were at 67 or lower, and that was to be expected. The Plantation course’s biggest defense is the wind, and it laid down for much of the day. Even bad starts turned out well. Justin Rose went out in 40 and had six birdies on the back to salvage a 71.

Jordan Spieth hit the first foul ball of the year, pushing his tee shot well right on the third hole into the tall native grasses, leading to a double bogey. He answered with nine birdies and was in the group at 7-under 66 that included Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Scottie Scheffler, the two-time PGA Tour player of the year and No. 1 player in the world.

“I didn’t have to struggle too much for pars,” Scheffler said.

The wind arrived later in the afternoon, but so many players were dialed in.

“You’re playing golf on the side of a volcano. It’s pretty different than a lot of the golf we play,” Scheffler said. “It’s definitely a fun way to start the year, fun golf course to play. Even though the scores are low, I still feel like you’re challenged a lot because you got to keep the pedal down the whole time.”

That’s what Morikawa tried to do from the opening group, making his strongest move along the back nine with its two par 5s and two short par 4s.

But it was the start that meant so much.

His grandparents were born in Lahaina and long ago had The Morikawa Restaurant, which closed some two decades before he was born. But the 26-year-old Californian came to Lahaina during family vacations as a boy.

He was warming up during the ceremony but still heard the drums, the chants. It was chilling on a balmy day on the west end of Maui.

“It got a little bit emotional,” he said. “I think just because I know what everyone has gone through, you hear it from these families, and you meet everyone out here on the island that knows someone or has been affected firsthand. Maui’s small. Hawaii’s very, very small. People know everyone. Just got emotional.

“Being able to hit that first tee shot, it was an honor just to be able to do that and, yeah, it’s a great way to kick off the new year.”

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