KAPALUA, Hawaii – The PGA Tour Initiative Award for 2018—we just created it this minute—goes to Russell Henley, who pulled into the parking lot at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort at 6:27 a.m. HST. Henley and his wife, Teil, are expecting their first child, a boy, on April 15. Tax day. They are not going to name him Sam, even if the federal government takes, possibly, a smaller bite of his income this year.
Henley was hitting the course at sunrise, 7:03 a.m., for some short-game work, which is his focus for improvement in 2018, before embarking on a quick 18-hole tour of the quirky Plantation Course with Brian Harman. They obviously are motivated to have great seasons. They were getting after it. Like the passion.
Also, for some reason, they had more than a passing interest in the Rose Bowl, which kicked off at noon local time. Of course, Georgia alumni.
Kevin Kisner, yet another Georgia product, straggled in at 8:15. He couldn’t believe the check-in times for his school mates. Kisner was planning a light day. “I’ve been here since Thursday, so there ain’t that much for me to do,” he said. “I’m ready.”
The three Bulldogs are among 34 players who tee it up in this week’s $6.3 million Sentry Tournament of Champions reserved for PGA Tour winners in 2017. The field includes defending champion and Player of the Year Justin Thomas, Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele and three of the major winners in Thomas (PGA), Brooks Koepka (U.S. Open) and Jordan Spieth (Open Championship).
The Sentry Tournament of Champions might be the first tournament of 2018, but it’s the eighth event of the tour season, which began in September but has been on hiatus since the RSM Classic concluded Nov. 19. Does a new year feel a little like the old year? Maybe.
Still, a new year does feel like a reset.
Henley, winner of the Shell Houston Open, is on a quest for improvement in 2018 that goes far beyond what he accomplishes on the golf course. His primary goal is admirable and worthy of emulating—to simply be more respectful of others and “try to love everyone beyond ourselves,” he said.
Easier than facing a curling 20-footer for par? “It’s a challenge, yeah,” he said, “especially in this game, when you can get so self-absorbed in what you’re doing. You get so focused, but it’s something both of us [he and Teil] feel very strongly about.”
Then again, everyone’s mood is better when he plays better, a cold truth for golfers of all skill levels. At the top of the game, improvement is sometimes difficult to attain, or even notice, since it can be so incremental.
So, sometimes assessing the big picture is more beneficial.
Billy Horschel, who won the AT&T Byron Nelson for his first victory since capturing the FedEx Cup title in 2013, has his sights set on making his first Ryder Cup team. “It’s not that I’m going to focus on it or obsess, but it’s something that is definitely a goal,” he said, “because if I do that, then it probably means that I’ve won a tournament, played well in majors, been more consistent.”
Now that the tour season straddles the calendar, there's almost no sense of an offseason, per se. Unless you create your own. Players test new equipment, maybe put on a few pounds of muscle (like Bryson DeChambeau has done), lose a few (like Horschel, who has a new trainer) or simply get refreshed. But as the cerebral DeChambeau notes, is there really time for a reset? Or a point to one?
“Yes, it’s a new year, but it’s not a new season,” said DeChambeau, who struggled for months in his rookie season before winning the John Deere Classic last July. “Right now, I’m 38th in the FedEx Cup standings, so we’re in the middle of something. There was some time off to make a few changes. For me, it was changing my body. I’m fiddling with a few things, but nothing like last year. I’m just looking forward to the journey and this week is another part of that journey.”
The one true reset is the major season, which begins in April and for one more year runs through August before a 2019 scheduling overhaul vaults the PGA into May and thus brings it to a close in July with the British Open.
A disappointing run in the majors last year has World No. 1 Dustin Johnson focused on adding to the U.S. Open title he collected in 2016. “I’d like to have a better year in the four majors. That’s the No. 1 thing,” he said, before it was pointed out that it would help if he played in all of them. Having to withdraw from the Masters after injuring his back in a freak accident in his rental home in Augusta, Ga., stalled a freight train of momentum he had accumulated with a three-tournament win streak starting in February.
“No, I will play in all of them,” he proclaimed before bashing a drive off the first tee at the Plantation Course without warming up or hitting a range ball. The tee shot creased the fairway. It looked like it came down somewhere over the nearby island of Molokai.