As the final group reached the back nine at the Sony Open in Honolulu on Sunday, five golfers shared the lead. Harris English, Jerry Kelly, Jeff Overton, Brian Stuard and Jimmy Walker - five of them across the Waialae Country Club track - and all that was missing was Dave Johnson's signature call, "And down the stretch they come!"
What was shaping up as a thrilling finish at the short par-5 18th hole or, even more likely, a multi-man playoff, ended instead in regulation. With a Secretariat-like back-nine 30, Walker galloped away to defeat late-charging Chris Kirk by a shot - and it wasn't even close to being that close. Walker birdied Nos. 15, 16 and 17 to head to 18 with a three-stroke edge. He didn't even birdie the final hole, and Kirk closed with a too-little, too-late three birdies in the final four holes for a cosmetic comeback.
For Walker, it was his second career win and second of the 2013-14 season, having won the Tour's kickoff event, the Frys.com Open, in October. And so the golfer who was coming off his best year as a pro in 2013 now seems headed for an even better 2014. As Johnny Miller said on Golf Channel before the win was even secure, "I have the feeling this is going to be quite the year for him."
English, who has won twice in the past year - like Walker, winning in the first part of the wraparound season at the OHL Classic as Mayakoba - was one of the hottest golfers entering fantasy drafts, a 24-year-old about to break through to greatness. Of course, Walker also had seen his stock rise in the past few months, but playing on Sunday four days shy of his 35th birthday, his upside and future were not as great as English's.
Not only did Walker card seven birdies in a bogey-free 63 to give him a 17-under 263 total - so he obviously was putting well - he led the season's first full-field event in driving distance at 319.5 yards. That combination will add up to more high finishes in 2014.
Interestingly, there were no ties among the top seven finishers, with a one-stroke difference all the way down the line - Kirk was second, Kelly was third, English was fourth, Marc Leishman was fifth, Stuard was sixth and Overton was seventh - before a 12-way logjam for eighth.
Kirk was the 54-hole leader, but there's no shame in a final-round 66. Like English, a University of Georgia product, he has also won once in 2013-14, and also seems destined for a stellar year. He won the McGladrey Classic in November for his second Tour win, that after a 2013 in which he just missed qualifying for the Tour Championship. As with Walker and English, Kirk seems onward toward a terrific season.
Now 47, it's a marvel that Kelly still competes as he does. He's won only three times in all his years on Tour, and not since 2009, but one was the 2002 Sony. He's still a viable option in deeper leagues. He shot 65 on Sunday, good enough to win many tournaments, but a bogey on 14 effectively ended his chances.
English had a two-stroke lead near the turn on Sunday, and at that point Miller sure sounded as if he believed English would win. He had only one bogey on the back nine, on No. 15, but he simply was missing too many putts and making too many pars to stay relevant in this track meet.
Leishman really wasn't in contention. A bogey on 13 left him off the first page of the leaderboard, but then he birdied four the final five holes to sneak into solo fifth. After his best year on Tour in 2012, the Aussie slumped badly in 2013. That included a T9 at the Sony, so this doesn't necessarily indicate Leishman is ready to revert to past form.
The 36-hole leader surely does like the Waialae course, as he finished T5 there last year, his first on Tour. He wound up with three top-10s in 2013, and played in two of the four FedEx Cup playoff events. He already has two top-10 finishes in the early going of 2013-14, so perhaps the 31-year-old late bloomer can make a modest improvement on his 78th-place FedEx Cup standing from a year ago.
In his first tournament as a married man, the occasionally volatile Overton kept his cool, even while bogeying Nos. 13 and 17. But he also remained winless in 220 career starts (four times finishing as a bridesmaid, sorry). He has two top-10s already in 2013-14, so maybe last year (100th in the FedEx Cup standings) was a bit of an aberration.
Charles Howell III
Howell was in the 12-man group in a tie for eighth, marking the eighth time he has finished in the top 10 at the Sony. He's 6-for-6 in cuts made in 2013-14, with four top-10s.
In only his third PGA Tour start - he missed the cut in 2010 Canadian Open and the 2011 U.S. Open - Wilcox also finished tied for eighth. Who knows? It's worth keeping an eye on him. He was 10th on the Web.comTour last year, and shot a 59. His top-10 finish secured him a spot in this week's Humana Challenge and in the Farmers Insurance Open in two weeks.
Another golfer in the large tie for eighth, Tanihara posted the best finish at the Sony for a Japanese golfer since Shigeki Maruyama was T7 in 2011. Like Willcox, Tanihara earned a spot in the Farmers in two weeks.