NARITA, Japan – There are moments when this week’s first-ever PGA Tour Champions event in Japan feels less like a golf tournament than a touring Broadway show.
The 60-some independent contractors who made the trip from Calgary to Tokyo for the JAL Championship arrived on the same Japan Airlines 777 charter. They’ve dined together, shopped together, sung Karaoke together, and ridden the bus together on the 75-minute drive to and from Narita Golf Club.
Here’s what else they’ve been doing together: making a lot of birdies.
From the moment the players poured out of a packed motorcoach early on Sept. 8, Narita Golf Club had little defense for them.
Kevin Sutherland and Glen Day led the way at 7 under, the only blemish for each coming on their final holes.
Scott McCarron, No. 2 on the Schwab Cup money list, entered the week with three victories over the past two months, and showed no signs of slowing down. After his lone bogey on Narita’s short par-4 14th, he reeled off three straight bogeys to finish at 6 under.
Immaculately conditioned and softened by steady rain, Narita GC was little match for the firepower from the over-50 set. Twenty-five players finished at 3 under or better.
It was hardly surprising that Sutherland, who has been one of the tour’s hottest players recently, shared the lead. He has posted five consecutive top 10s and moved to No. 5 on the Schwab Cup money list entering this week. Sutherland birdied three of the four par 3s and nursed an uncooperative driver around the back nine. The only blemish was a three-putt bogey on his last hole.
“I hit my irons really well today and I made some long putts,” Sutherland said. “On the par 4s today, especially on the last nine holes, I was really just trying to make par. I was really struggling to get the ball in the fairway.”
Sutherland opted to take that as a positive because he was still scoring well, if not hitting it precisely. “If I drive the ball a little bit better tomorrow, I’m going to like my chances,” he added.
Day, by contrast, had no reason to like his chances when he arrived in Tokyo. He hadn’t finished higher than T-25 in his past six starts.
“I haven’t played good the last couple weeks, just haven’t played good at all, and when I did play good, I didn’t score good,” Day said. “Today I didn’t play great but I scored great, so there’s a difference. I mean, I’m not hitting the ball on the button by any means. I missed the 18th fairway by 50 yards. But I putted great, and so hey, they don’t draw pictures.”
With Schwab Cup leader Bernhard Langer skipping the trip to Japan, McCarron figured to be the player to watch. For McCarron, the day felt less like a Broadway show than a TV sitcom.
“I missed some putts I should have made and I made some putts I shouldn’t have made, so today was kind of a Jerry Seinfeld day, even‑steven, just one of those things,” McCarron said. “I missed a couple of short ones and some easy birdie putts and all of a sudden I make putts that break eight feet.”