It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.
Cameron Smith showed that at last year’s Sony Open in Hawaii. Smith won despite playing his first two holes in 4 over par, including a triple-bogey on his second hole of the tournament.
Smith is the only player in the ShotLink era (since 2003) to win after playing his first two holes in 4 over par. He’s also one of just 10 players since 1990 to win after making a triple-bogey (or worse) in the opening round.
Smith is in strong company, as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Greg Norman, Davis Love III and Sergio Garcia have also done it. It may come as no surprise that Mickelson is the only player on the list twice.
It makes sense that this group includes many of the best players from the past 30 years. It’s hard to win after spotting the field three shots on a single hole. Let’s look at the last 10 players to win after making a triple (or worse) in the opening round and how they recovered from such a tough start.
2020 Sony Open in Hawaii - 2nd hole
No winner in the ShotLink era has gotten off to a worse start. Smith bogeyed his opening hole at Waialae, then tripled the next one.
Smith had to hole a 14-footer just to save bogey on his first hole. Then he hit “maybe the worst shot I’ve ever hit on TOUR.”
His tee shot on the second hole, a 425-yard, par-4, was “the biggest, quickest snap hook you’ve ever seen in your life,” he said. It traveled just 177 yards. He had to lay up, then knocked his 110-yard third shot over the green. He chunked a chip, hit his next one to 7 feet and missed the putt.
Smith birdied three of his final four holes to shoot 70, then shot of 65-66-68 before winning a playoff with Brendan Steele.
“There’s no point in worrying about what you’ve just done,” Smith said, “You may as well be focused on what you can do.”
2016 Deutsche Bank Championship - 12th hole
It had been more than a year since his last win, and there was nothing about his start to the 2016 Deutsche Bank Championship that made it look like his drought would come to an end this week.
He bogeyed his second hole of the tournament and was facing a 14-footer for triple on the next one. He made it, then went bogey-free on his next 15 holes to salvage an even-par 71. He started the final round six back, but shot 65 in cool, windy conditions to beat Paul Casey by two.
“It's just incredible, this game, how quickly things can change and how quickly things can turn around,” McIlroy said. “It's been a great lesson for me this week not to get down on myself, to stay patient. After three holes on Friday, there was so much going through my head and none of those things involved sitting beside a trophy at the end of the week.”
McIlroy won the TOUR Championship two weeks later to claim his first FedExCup. His season had gone from mediocre to memorable in a matter of weeks.
Rory McIlroy surges to victory at Deutsche Bank
2009 TOUR Championship - 14th hole
Mickelson was cruising along at 1 under par for his first 13 holes of the 2009 TOUR Championship. Then he arrived at the 442-yard, downhill 14th hole (now East Lake’s fifth hole).
The trouble didn’t come off the tee. Mickelson blasted a 321-yard tee shot into the middle of the fairway, leaving himself just 125 yards to the hole. He dumped that approach shot into the front greenside bunker, however. It took him six strokes to hole out from there. He bladed the bunker shot over the green, then hit his next shot back into the same bunker. He left the next shot in the sand before blasting out to 8 feet and two-putting.
His first-round 73 left him seven shots off the lead. He played the next three rounds in 12 under par, six strokes better than anyone else in the field. His final-round 65 was the best of the day by two strokes.
Adam Scott (2016 Honda Classic) is the only player since to win after making a quadruple-bogey.
2007 Deutsche Bank Championship - 9th hole
What a week it was. Before the tournament, he visited Kennebunkport, Maine, for golf with President George H.W. Bush. After the second round, Mickelson watched the Red Sox’ Clay Buchholz throw a no-hitter at Fenway Park. Then Mickelson won the second event of the inaugural FedExCup Playoffs.
Mickelson, who was paired with Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh in the opening round, had a birdie and an eagle in his first four holes. He gave it all back on the ninth hole, though.
“I certainly made a big mistake on 9,” he said. “It was just a sloppy swing. I felt like there was so much fairway out there. I just didn't give it the attention it needed. I hit just a terrible shot and ended up making triple.”
It was his only over-par hole of his first-round 70, and one of just three he had for the event. He shot 64-68-66 in the final three rounds to finish two ahead of Woods, Arron Oberholser and Brett Wetterich.
2007 Valspar Championship - 17th hole
Calcavecchia had just birdied the opening hole of the Snake Pit to get back to even par in the first round of the 2007 Valspar Championship. Then he got bit.
On the 208-yard 17th, his tee shot came to rest nearly 50 yards left of the hole. He hit his next shot into a greenside bunker and blasted out. But three putts from 14 feet left him with a triple-bogey. He bogeyed 18 for a first-round 75 that left him 10 shots off the lead and tied for 112th place.
Calcavecchia, 46, charged into a share of the 54-hole lead with a Saturday 62 that tied the course record. He missed a 5-foot par putt on the 72nd hole, but still won after Heath Slocum missed his 4-footer for par. It was the last of Calcavecchia’s 13 wins, which includes the 1989 Open Championship.
His 75 tied the highest first-round score by a winner in the last 30 years. Only two players since have won after shooting 75 in the first round (Jon Rahm, 2020 BMW Championship; Brooks Koepka, 2018 U.S. Open).
2004 RBC Canadian Open - 11th hole
This win came during the finest season of Singh’s career, when he won a career-high nine times. He broke the heart of a nation at Glen Abbey, beating native son Mike Weir in a playoff.
Singh won despite making TWO triple-bogeys on the same hole, Glen Abbey’s 11th, that week. He signed for 7s on the 452-yard hole in both the first and third rounds. He was 7 over par on the 11th hole that week and 16 under par on the other 68 holes.
He is the only player since 1983 (when the TOUR started keeping hole-by-hole stats) to win while making multiple scores of triple-bogey or worse.
An incredible comeback in the first round made this win possible. He played a seven-hole stretch on his back nine in 7 under par, shooting 28 on that side en route to a first-round 68.
Singh forces sudden death at 2004 Bell Canadian Open
Davis Love III
2003 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am - 2nd hole
A week earlier, a fellow TOUR player asked Love if he’d ever double-hit a chip shot. He hadn’t.
“So, of course, the next round I play, I double-hit a chip and it cost me a triple.”
It was part of a topsy-turvy first round for Love at Poppy Hills. He eagled his opening hole but was 3 over after 15 holes. He birdied his final three holes to salvage an even-par round.
“You forget about it and move on,” Love said. “Unfortunately, I’ve made a lot of triples.”
He played his final 54 holes in 14 under par to beat Tom Lehman by one.
2002 Sentry Tournament of Champions - 13th hole
Garcia shared some big goals at the start of the season-opening event. Woods had completed the Tiger Slam less than a year earlier but Garcia wasn’t afraid to express his desire to win the money list on both sides of the Atlantic.
“That’s the expectations,” Garcia said in his pre-tournament press conference. “You’ve got to try to take them as high as you can so you’re able to reach the closest to that goal.”
Garcia’s season got off to a topsy-turvy start, however. He made five birdies and an eagle in the first round but also had a triple and four bogeys. His 73 beat just six players in the 32-man field and was 10 shots behind leader Mike Weir.
Garcia shot 9-under 64 in the final round to force a playoff with David Toms. Garcia holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation, then did it again on the first playoff hole. It was Garcia’s third win in his last 11 PGA TOUR starts.
“I’m leading the money list,” Garcia said. “When I get old I can say to my nephews, ‘I was the money leader – for at least one week.’”
2001 Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard - 8th hole
A month before completing the Tiger Slam, Woods had to answer questions at Bay Hill about a slump.
He’d won 17 times in the previous two seasons, but had gone a whopping five starts in 2001 without a victory.
“I'm scoring better than I did last year,” Woods said. “The only problem is I just haven't got the right breaks at the right time, and you need to have that in order to win.”
He got one on the final hole of the tournament. First, he had to overcome a mistake on his second-to-last hole of the opening round.
Woods made triple on his 17th hole Thursday, hitting his approach into the pond that fronts Bay Hill’s eighth green. He knocked his next shot into a bunker behind the green. With a bad lie in the sand, he couldn’t find the green with that shot either. He finally chipped to 4 feet before one-putting for a 7.
He shot 71 in the first round, then fired 67-66 in the next two rounds to take a one-shot lead over Sergio Garcia into the final round.
When Woods arrived at 18 on Sunday, he was tied atop the leaderboard with Mickelson. Woods pulled his tee shot left of the fairway. His ball was headed towards the OB before bouncing off the neck of spectator Tony DeKroub. Woods took advantage of the good fortune, hitting his 195-yard approach to 15 feet and sinking the birdie putt to nip Mickelson.
Woods won THE PLAYERS and the Masters in his next two starts.
Tiger Woods wins 2001 Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard
1990 Doral-Ryder Open - 3rd hole
Norman’s career was defined by Sunday struggles and clutch shots that denied him titles. Not this week. On the final day of the 1990 Doral-Ryder Open, he shot a course record before chipping in on the first hole of a playoff.
Norman had eight birdies in his first-round 68. He also made triple-bogeyat the third hole after hooking his tee shot into the water.
“It was ugly,” he said. “It wasn’t too far in and I started to go in the water to hit it. I took my shoes and socks off but before I knew it, I was up to my knees in mud. I figured I’d better take a drop.”
He was still just three shots behind leader Jim Gallagher, Jr. Norman fell seven off the pace after shooting 73-70 in the next two rounds, however. He made a Sunday charge with a course-record 62 on Sunday before winning his playoff with Paul Azinger, Mark Calcavecchia and Tim Simpson.
The first paragraph of the Associated Press said it all.
“Greg Norman, who has discovered so many remarkable methods of losing golf tournaments, finally found an equally spectacular way to win one on Sunday,” it read.
1990 USF&G Classic - 15th hole
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Norman faced more heartbreak. Three weeks after Doral, Robert Gamez holed a 7-iron on Bay Hill’s 18th hole to beat Norman. Then Frost clipped Norman by a shot in New Orleans after holing a bunker shot on the 72nd hole.
Norman shot a final-round 65, the lowest score of the tournament. He finished eagle-birdie-bogey-birdie, hitting his approach on 18 to 9 inches. He looked like he was headed for at least a playoff, if not a victory, after Frost found the bunker off the tee and by the green. Then he sank his sand shot to cap off a back-nine 31.
“What can you say? He hit a great shot,” Norman said.
Frost won despite a triple on the par-5 15th in the first round. His 71 was still just two shots off the lead.