HONOLULU – The rookie debut of Scott Langley in the Sony Open made him feel like he was back in college again.
Langley spent the final two hours of the opening round exchanging birdies and battling for the lead with Russell Henley. They were low amateurs in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and immediately afterward they sat together on a plane for a long flight to Northern Ireland to play in the Palmer Cup. They've been close friends ever since.
Joining them on Thursday at Waialae was Luke Guthrie, a highly touted rookie who was Langley's roommate at Illinois.
This was the first full-field event of the PGA Tour season, and the rookies stole the show.
"It was fun to be able to break the ice on all our careers playing with friends," Langley said.
Langley did more than break the ice. Despite a few jangled nerves at the start, he made it around without a bogey, holed 192 feet worth of putts and opened with an 8-under 62. He hit a delicate flop shot over the corner of a bunker on the par-5 18th hole to 6 feet for one last birdie, giving him a one-shot lead over Henley, who settled for par.
Only when they were walking toward the 16th green did it begin to sink in how far they had come in one year. They gazed at the sun falling toward the Pacific horizon, the swaying palm trees on both sides of the green and the gentle surf. And to think just last year they were at a Hooters Tour event.
"He had just missed the cut, I barely made the cut, we were on the range trying to help each other find it," Langley said. "We were just walking up 16. You could see the ocean behind, PGA Tour signs everywhere. We looked at each other and realized this is pretty cool, to look back one year ago and to know that we weren't here. We were in a far different place."
The golf was special.
Langley, a lefty who grew up outside St. Louis learning to swing on mats at a family golf center, relied heavily on what he calls his "S-3" — stinger 3-wood — a beautiful, piercing ball flight that he kept under the wind and in play. His putter certainly helped, most notably the 55-foot eagle putt he holed on the par-5 ninth, and the 30-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole that gave him the outright lead.
Henley, who made five birdies on the back nine, knocked in a pair of 15-foot putts on the 14th and 15th holes to tie for the lead, and he made another birdie on the 17th to answer Langley's big putt on the previous hole. All that separated them was Henley's chip on the 18th that came out hot and settled 30 feet away for a two-putt par.
"I think there was a lot of nerves for me the first few holes and I think playing with Scotty and Luke was huge for me, and watching them play well kind of gave me a goal to try to keep up with them, so it was definitely fun feeding off them," Henley said.
One group had to return Friday morning because they didn't finish before dark, but the evidence was clear. The wind was typical of Waialae, though nothing like the gusts that caused the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua to start four days late. And there was reasonable scoring on a course with only two par 5s.
Scott Piercy, one of 20 players on Maui, had a much easier time on these greens and had a 64. Tim Clark matched him in the afternoon, excited about his start and that he finally feels healthy after a mysterious elbow injury cost him just about all of 2011 — right after his runner-up finish at the Sony Open.
"It's going to be an exciting year for me because I do feel like I'm healthy again and can play a full schedule," Clark said. "I'm obviously doing a lot better than I was last year."
But even Clark couldn't help but notice the names on the leaderboard, mainly because he didn't know who they were. There are always a few rookies to get off to a quick start at the Sony Open. It was rare to see them leading, and with such low scores.
"I'm a young guy, but I'm old enough to know that we have a lot of golf left," Langley said. "We've barely started, and I'm excited about the next few days."
Dustin Johnson, trying to become the first player in 10 years to sweep the Hawaii swing after his win last week at windy Kapalua, finished with a pair of bogeys for a 70. His gallery included his companion of late, Paulina Gretzky, who was joined by her parents. Her father, Wayne Gretzky, watched intently except for when fans recognized The Great One. Two men with a maple leaf on their shirts didn't have to look twice.
But this day belonged to the rookies, and not just Langley and Henley.
Morgan Hoffman, another rookie, opened with a 66 in the morning. Ben Kohles, who turned pro last summer and won his first two starts on the Web.com Tour, had a 67.
"It just seems like the last few years, there's been so many more younger guys and new guys out here on tour," Clark said. "It's going to be exciting to watch some of these guys play."
The top two rookies were not totally new to the game, from a few sponsor exemptions they have received over the years, along with the U.S. Open. Henley won on the Nationwide Tour as an amateur, and then twice last year when he turned pro.
Outside of golf, Langley and Hoffman lived last year with Rickie Fowler, along with Cameron Tringale.
"Kid has a heart of gold," Langley said of Fowler. "Last year, I can really point to some areas in my golf game that were really improved just by being around Rickie and being around Cam and Morgan. They're such competitors, and there's so much good confidence — the right kind of confidence — and I really fed off that, living in the house. It was just a blast to live there."
Yes, but who did the dishes.
"I think I tried to do my share because I was rent-free," Langley said with a laugh. "It was like living in a house with a bunch of guys in college."
Playing on the PGA Tour, at least for one day, didn't feel much different.