Hayden Buckley eye on his first title at Sony Open

HONOLULU – Hayden Buckley made eagle the hard way (from 133 yards at the par-4 10th hole) and the easy way (from 27 inches at the par-5 18th) as he shot a second straight 64 to get to 15 under par and take a two-shot lead at the Sony Open in Hawaii. 

David Lipsky (66), Ben Taylor (65), and Chris Kirk (68) are two back, while Si Woo Kim (64) and Andrew Putnam (62) are at 12 under and will go into Sunday three back.

With his first PGA TOUR victory in his sights, the question had to be asked: When was the last time Buckley was out at a restaurant and got recognized as a professional golfer?

“Probably never,” said Buckley, who got married in the off-season and barely touched a club. “Doesn’t happen much. I’m enjoying that while I can.”

Lipsky and England’s Taylor will also be seeing their first win Sunday. Then there’s Kirk, 37, a four-time PGA TOUR winner, most recently at the 2015 Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. That was the same year Kirk played for the winning U.S. Presidents Cup Team in South Korea.

Will having those experiences give him a leg up?

“I don’t know, probably not,” he said. “If I had won three weeks ago maybe, but it’s been a little while. I definitely know what it takes, but also know it’s not easy to do.

“But I definitely like where I'm at,” he continued. “I like the way my golf game feels. Obviously am very comfortable and love this place, so I'm excited for the opportunity against these guys that haven’t won. Most of them are probably 15 years I younger than me.”

Kirk has four top-10s, including two runner-up finishes at the Sony, where he has recorded 13 rounds of 65 or better since 2011, more than anyone. Another reason he should like his position is that four of the last five winners of the Sony came from an average of two strokes back.

Putnam, who made his 13th straight cut at the Sony, the second-longest active streak on TOUR (Jon Rahm, 20), lives in Tacoma, Washington, which doesn’t have optimal winter weather, so he prepared for one island golf trip with another. Last month he went to Cuba with friends who help residents start small businesses, and he brought his clubs and played three times at Varadero Golf Club.

“It’s a good course,” he said. “Unfortunately, they had a huge fire, and all the mowers were destroyed, so $7 million worth of damage right before we got there. I think they had one or two mowers on the whole island. I think they have to hand mow all through the night to get the course ready.”

Putnam, whose lone TOUR win came at the 2018 Barracuda Championship, was 2 over through four holes Saturday. Then he made six straight birdies and ended his round with three more. He took just 24 strokes on the greens and made 167 feet of putts. Not surprisingly, he ranked No. 1 in Strokes Gained: Putting for the round. He’s also tops in the field in that metric for the week – he’s made over 400 feet of putts – which is important at the Sony.

Since 2010, ever Sony winner but one has ranked in the top 10 in Strokes Gained: Putting.

Si Woo Kim shot a third-round 64 and said his singles victory over Justin Thomas at the Presidents Cup last fall helped with his self-belief. “My game was little down like at the end of the season,” said Kim, a three-time PGA TOUR winner, including THE PLAYERS Championship in 2017, “but I think that kind of like gave me momentum.”

They’ll all be chasing Buckley, 26, who has already experienced one life-changing moment in Hawaii. It wasn’t that long ago that he shot a 61 at the Warrior Princeville Makai Invitational, a college tournament in Hawaii. He was a senior at Missouri and realized he might just have the stuff to play golf professionally, perhaps even on the PGA TOUR.

“It kind of woke me up a little bit to where I realized, this is something I could do for a living,” he said. “… It was that defining moment where I was studying pretty hard, and I studied a little less hard after that because I knew that golf was something that I was going to pursue.”

In his 40th PGA TOUR start, this marks the first time Buckley has held the 54-hole lead. Newly married, he’s also a new resident of Jupiter, Florida, having moved there from nearby Fort Myers in the fall. He’s spent only three days in Jupiter and hasn’t had time to find a place to play.

Perhaps, someone suggested, the clubs there will have to fight for him.

“Hope so,” he said. “That would be great.”