NEWPORT BEACH — With lush, green playing conditions at Newport Beach Country Club because of recent rainy weather, it seemed fitting that the opening round of the 2023 Hoag Classic on Friday was played on St. Patrick’s Day.
Many in the gallery also were also wearing green, but red – as in red numbers – turned out to be the color of the day.
With the world’s best 50-and-older players on PGA Tour Champions taking aim at the flagsticks because of the rain-softened greens, the Hoag Classic turned into a birdie-fest on Friday, with Bernhard Langer, Chris DiMarco and Miguel Angel Jimenez tied at the top of a crowded leaderboard after carding 7-under-par 64s.
For 65-year-old Langer, his 12-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th, which rolled halfway around the cup before dropping, had added significance for the oldest player in the field.
In addition to lifting him into a tie for the lead, it marked the ninth time in his career that Langer has shot his age or lower in a round and puts him in position as he chases the all-time record of PGA Tour Champions titles this weekend. Langer currently is tied with fellow World Golf Hall of Famer Hale Irwin with 45 titles.
“Obviously, I was aware that 6-under (65) would be my age and 7-under would better my age. I was happy to see that last putt wiggle in,” Langer said, smiling.
“Usually, they wiggle out here.”
Is No. 46 in the back of his mind?
“Not really, but you know, I’m going to get asked that question every week, so I might as well say yes,” he said. “I’m trying to play every hole as good as I can and then see where the chips fall.”
A lot of the putts fell on Friday for the majority in the 78-player field, with 56 players finishing under par and nine other players finishing within two shots of the leaders. Doug Barron and Mike Weir are tied for fourth after shooting 6-under 65, and seven players are tied for sixth after shooting 66: Newport Beach resident Fred Couples, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Scott Verplank, Darren Clarke, Kevin Sutherland and Rob Labritz.
Though Newport Beach Country Club was renovated and lengthened since the 2022 Hoag Classic was contested, the course did not show its teeth Friday because of the soft course conditions. Greens softened by the three inches of rain that fell between Tuesday and Wednesday, flooding a few of the holes and wiping out two days of practice rounds and pro-ams, enabled players to attack pin positions they normally wouldn’t under firm and fast conditions.
In addition, the field played “preferred lies” during the opening round – meaning players were allowed to lift their golf balls in the fairway and all closely mown areas, clean them, and then place them before hitting an approach shot.
“I think the big thing today was ball in hand,” said DiMarco, who is looking for his first Champions title. “Obviously, hitting a clean ball every time you’re in the fairway, you’ve got a clean ball, you can control your distance, you can control your spin; that’s what I tried to do. … I’m not necessarily firing at every pin, but I’m definitely making sure I’m hitting comfortable shots to the right pins.”
“We had so much mud on the ball, they had to play (ball in hand),” Langer said. “Every ball I marked was muddy. … And whenever you play preferred lies, you have a good lie on the fairway and then the greens are obviously more receptive, so you can go flag-hunting, as many would say. The ball doesn’t bounce off as much, and it’s easier on bunker shots and chip shots because the greens are a little softer.”
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Langer praised most of the course changes made during the renovation under architect Casey O’Callaghan, course superintendent Scot Dey and NBCC General Manager Robin Shelton. The 13th , 15th and 17th greens were rebuilt to remove distinct tiers and steep slopes; a number of bunkers were moved to different landing areas and new bunkers were added; and the 5th, 12th, 13th and 14th holes were lengthened. The par-4 5th was lengthened to 466 yards and converted into a par-5 for members, but Champions officials decided to play No. 5 as a 444-yard par-4 and not play the new back tees on No. 14 (475 yards) because of the wet weather.
“They’ve changed three greens, and they’re all fantastic,” Langer said. “Some of the holes are quite a bit longer, and there are lots more bunkers (85, up from 63). There’s more premium on driving the ball straight. … Overall, I like the changes.”
DiMarco concurred, for different reasons.
“This is the first time I saw the changes and played them,” he said. “I feel like they almost benefit me because they moved a lot of these bunkers a little further out, and I can’t get to them. And then a lot of the ones that were on the wrong side of the fairway are on the right side of the fairway now. It worked out pretty good, to tell you the truth.”