Bae Sang-Moon doesn't get enough credit for his sense of humor, which he served up when he arrived at Kapalua for the Hyundai Tournament of Championship. Upon spotting a familiar face in the media, Bae broke into a big smile and said, "I made big news, huh?"
On Friday, he made news for his golf.
Facing uncertainty at home, the 28-year-old from South Korea showed a clear mind on the Plantation Course at Kapalua. He opened with six birdies in eight holes and at one point was four shots clear of the field until he slowed on the back nine. Bae had to settle for a 7-under 66, one shot behind Russell Henley after the opening round of the first PGA Tour event of the year.
"A little bit hard to focus on my game because I got a little trouble," Bae said. "But I try to split things. But I don't want to think about it, the other things on the course. So yeah, I think I did really good today. I really want to the next three days, also."
The trouble — the "big news" to which Bae referred was his two-year mandatory military service. Bae received a deferment and was granted an overseas travel permit to play golf around the world, mainly in America. But there is debate over how much time he spent at home, and the government has denied an extension of the travel permit.
Bae has hired a legal firm to help sort this out, though it didn't help earlier in the week when his comments didn't translate clearly. He said he was not going back to Korea, which caused a stir back home. What he meant was that he not required to be in Korea while the law firm deals with the matter.
He kept his comments to a minimum on Friday, laughing when someone suggested everyone else seemed more concerned about his future than he did. And when asked if he felt a sense of urgency to play well in case his travel permit is taken away, he hedged before saying, "I don't know. Just play."
Bae did that beautifully on Friday, and he had company.
The putter might be the best club in Henley's bag, and it feels even better when he knows where the rest of his shots are going. Henley sought the help of swing coach Scott Hamilton over the summer as he tried to build a swing that was more on plane, more shallow than steep and a lot simpler. The changes are starting to take — he was runner-up at the Deutsche Bank Championship and tied for fourth at the McGladrey Classic — and when the putter warms up, his confidence only grows.
Henley played bogey-free and made eight birdies, with four of those birdies from 20 feet or longer.
"I kept the ball in front of me pretty decent today, and didn't scare too many chances at bogey," Henley said. "But my main thing was obviously I putted great and was seeing the lines today. If I can putt like that every day, I would probably have a few more wins."
Ben Crane and Kevin Stadler were the only players not to break par. They each shot 74.
The first tournament of the year always shows who has been working and who needs to shake off some rust. Most players have not competed in nearly two months, except those who were at the Hero World Challenge the first week of December or played overseas.
Masters champion Bubba Watson played in Thailand to close out his best year ever, and he has been at Kapalua for the last week before his shots counted. He had a 70, a reasonable start, though he has yet to break 69 in 12 rounds on the Plantation Course.
This was the day to do it. It's rare when the flags aren't moving, though even a relatively calm day doesn't make it that easy. The greens are among the largest, and the grain and slope can prove tricky even to the regulars in this winners-only event.
Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, who joined Watson as the only multiple winners on tour last year who are at Kapalua, led a group at 67 that included Scott Stallings, Robert Streb and Ben Martin, who chipped in for eagle on the 18th with a shot that would have gone 20 feet by the hole if it hadn't banged into the pin.
Matt Kuchar, never far from the hunt, was among those at 68.
The only thing to interrupt this working vacation was the starting time Saturday. Because of the NFL playoffs, the first group had to get up pre-dawn for a 7:15 a.m. HST tee time. But they're in Hawaii. There is no cut. They can manage.