KAPALUA, Hawaii — Jonathan Byrd had the last tee time of the first tournament of the new PGA Tour season, leaving him all morning to sit down with his wife and try to temper expectations with a little perspective.
Byrd has contributed to a book of devotionals compiled by Ben Crane, and in one of them, Byrd wrote about how discouraged he felt when he arrived at the Tournament of Champions and felt his accomplishments did not measure up to other players. The lesson from that was to quit trying to prove himself and to simply enjoy the game.
"Every year you feel like you've got to validate yourself and prove yourself. It's just a hard way to live," Byrd said. "We talked about that, kind of backing up and let's go have fun and see what we've got, and play a couple of weeks and evaluate from there."
He had a blast in the opening round Friday.
Starting with an 8-iron from 120 yards into the wind that settled 5 feet from the cup at No. 3, Byrd ran off six straight birdies on the front nine of the Plantation Course at Kapalua. Despite failing to take advantage on three par 5s the rest of the way, he still shot 6-under 67 to build a one-shot lead in the PGA Tour's season-opening event.
A new year and nothing changed on the leaderboard at Kapalua.
Byrd earned his ticket back to paradise last year by beating Robert Garrigus in a playoff. It turned out to be his only win of the year, but to change that would be looking too far ahead, and that's the last thing Byrd wants to do.
For a moment, it was worth looking behind.
He holed three birdie putts from the 25-foot range to close out his big run. It was similar to his start a year ago, when he made five birdies on the front nine and then holed out a wedge for eagle on No. 10. He stalled, just as he did Friday, and even found himself a little disappointed when he walked off the 18th green after a three-putt par. His eagle putt was some 8 feet off line.
"You're leading the golf tournament, and you walk off a hole embarrassed," he said. "But I was."
Webb Simpson played the last five holes on the front nine in 5-under par, helped by an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole. He also missed a birdie chance on the final hole and had a 68, tied with Michael Bradley, Martin Laird and Steve Stricker.
Only six players managed to break 70, even though the trade wind was tough enough to make a few shots challenging, though not hard enough to make the Plantation Course play overly difficult.
One reason for so few low scores might have been so many newcomers.
There were 12 players at Kapalua for the first time, and only two of them broke 70 — Simpson and PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who holed out a pitch shot from short of the par-5 ninth green for an eagle that sent him to a 69.
Even with Byrd atop the leaderboard, this is nothing like last year.
Never has Kapalua had so many no-shows — 11 players who either didn't or couldn't come to Maui. Seven of them were international players who went deep into last year to complete overseas schedules; one was Phil Mickelson, who hasn't played here in nearly 10 years; and three were recovering from injuries.
The field shrunk to 27 players Friday morning when Lucas Glover, who sprained his right knee in a freak paddle board accident last Saturday upon arriving in Hawaii, had to withdraw. It was the smallest field since this tournament moved to Kapalua in 1999, and the smallest at the Tournament of Champions since only 24 played in 1994.
That was of little concern to the players who tried to remind themselves that a new season was starting amid just splendid scenery, such a glorious day that clouds were hard to find.
Just like any new season, there was a degree of nervousness and uncertainty, starting with the defending champion.
"You're never sure what you're going to get the first round of the year," Byrd said.
Laird had some bad feelings early with consecutive bogeys early in his round, but bounced back with a 33 on the back nine for his 68. Stricker, at No. 6 the highest-ranked American in the world, put his 5-iron into the gorge on the par-3 eighth for a double bogey, and then he rallied strong. He birdied four of his last five holes.
"I wasn't very happy at the time," Stricker said. "I knew if I could get a good, decent round in — I was thinking get 3 under or something like that — I'd be OK. But I got a couple more than that coming in."
Scott Piercy arrived on Christmas — he has a vacation place in nearby Kaanapali — and played the Plantation Course plenty of times to get ready for the new season.
"I saved all my worst shots for today," he said after rallying for a 70.
Gary Woodland drove into the native grass and had to take a penalty drop on the ninth hole. He had 224 yards, up the hill and into a strong wind, and thought he had to blast a 3-wood to have any hope of getting to the green. He blasted it all right, over the green and into the bleachers, though he managed to escape with par.
Brendan Steele said he picked up on the nuances of golf courses fairly easily in his rookie season. This was unlike any of those courses, however.
"The wind, the grain, the slope ... you can look pretty silly," he said after a 76.
Byrd said he rarely plays well when he feels confident; he's better off feeling uneasy about his game, and that's about how he felt when he woke up Friday morning.
He chunked his opening tee shot and had to make a long two-putt for par, but his fortunes turned quickly. From about 120 yards into the wind on the third hole, he played an 8-iron back in his stance and played a low draw that spun close to the cup and settled about 5 feet away. That was the first of six straight birdies, and just like that, Byrd was back atop the leaderboard.