HONOLULU — Webb Simpson was so determined to switch to a conventional putting style that he broke his belly putter over his knee so he could never use it again. He might be the most surprised of anyone to be tied for the lead Friday in the Sony Open.
With expectations next to nil from using a regular putter for the first time in 10 years, Simpson ran off three birdies over the last five holes for a 4-under 66 to share the lead with Matt Kuchar and PGA Tour rookie Justin Thomas.
“The broken belly putter is in my trophy case at home. It’s on top,” Simpson said. “I can’t use it. I could use it — it would be a short putter.”
Kuchar, playing alongside Simpson, had a 63.
The big surprise was Thomas, the 21-year-old son of a club pro in Kentucky — not because of his age, or because it’s his first time to Waialae, but the way he finished. Thomas figured he couldn’t catch Kuchar and Simpson, so he tried to at least get a little closer to them. He hit 8-iron to 12 feet for birdie, hit a wedge to 6 feet for birdie on the next hole, and then pounded a tee shot on the par-5 ninth and had only a 9-iron to the green. He hit that to 18 feet and made the putt for eagle.
That gave him a 61 — one off the course record Davis Love III set in 1994, about 10 months after Thomas was born.
“It was probably the best zone and best focus I’ve ever been in,” Thomas said. “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.”
The other time was at a junior event. He was 8.
It sets up for a dynamic weekend at Waialae.
At the top at 12-under 128 were Simpson and Kuchar, who were Ryder Cup teammates last fall, joined by Thomas, one of the promising rookies on tour.
They were two shots clear of Tim Clark (65) and Troy Merritt (64). Defending champion Jimmy Walker had a 66 for his 15th consecutive round in the 60s in Hawaii. That put him in a group four shots behind, very much in the picture on a course where the leaders tend to be bunched up until the back nine on Sunday.
Even though Simpson is a former U.S. Open champion, he might be the most surprised, and certainly among the most pleased.
Simpson has been using a belly putter since 2004. He saw one at Pinehurst during a family holiday, and was worried to take it back to Wake Forest for fear his teammates would laugh at him. But it’s hard to argue with the results, and he was perfectly content to use it until the USGA and R&A decided for him. They adopted a rule effective next January that outlaws the anchored stroke used for such putters.
Simpson knew he had one year left, but he didn’t want to be told to change by a deadline. He played the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan late last year, and decided to change.
And he did so with emphasis.
“I’m a big believer in not changing something that’s not broken,” Simpson said. “So I felt myself kind of backing out. … In front of my wife, I snapped it over my knee, and I was going to throw it away, but she said, ‘No, no, we’ve got to keep it. You’ve done a lot of good stuff with that.’”
And he’s doing more good stuff this week, though it’s more than just putting. He forged a share of the lead with Kuchar on the par-5 18th with shot to the front of the green and two putts — a beautiful lag — for birdie.
Kuchar, one of the most consistent players in golf, wasn’t even aware that Simpson had made the switch until the opening hole Thursday.
“He made about a 6- or 7-footer for birdie and I said, ‘Holy cow, mark the time and date. Webb Simpson used a short putter and actually made it look pretty good,’” Kuchar said. “Yesterday was a beautiful day of putting, and I joked with him that the USGA might have to rethink banning the long putter because he’s putting even better with a short putter. He didn’t miss a single putt that he should have made in two days. It was a very, very good effort.”
The 85 players who made the cut included 16-year-old Kyle Suppa, a junior at Punahou. He had another 69 and made the cut on the number, but the kid has more work left. Because more than 78 players made the cut, there will be another cut for the top 70 professionals and ties on Saturday.
Thomas missed the cut in his first two events last fall until he realized that having a PGA Tour card for a rookie doesn’t guarantee full status for the year. This weekend could set up well for him, though the emotions of being in the last group at the highest level will be new.
That didn’t faze Thomas. He’s not sure how he will react, but he figured it would happen sooner or later. Why not now?