Hayden Buckley knew it wasn’t his driving that kept him from his first PGA Tour victory at the Sony Open.
“The ball-striking, I’ve always known that it’s my strength, but just to see it, especially after a month off, I really didn’t think I needed to work on too much this offseason,” Buckley said after finishing runner-up. “Just to see what I can do with the driver I think is something that will benefit me I think in the long run.”
On the young season, Buckley ranks fourth in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and was fifth in the stat at Waialea. On the 12th hole, immediately following his first bogey of the final round, Buckley pounded it 352 yards into the middle of the fairway, setting up a bounce-back birdie.
That was one of several long, clutch tee shots Buckley hit during the week, including a couple of 3-woods at the par-5 18th. His ball-striking gave him a one-stroke lead as he headed to the back nine Sunday, but it was his short putting that let him down. He ended up finishing runner-up to Si Woo Kim, his best finish on Tour.
“I feel like the putting was a little shaky,” he said. “It didn’t feel great all week, even though I did make a lot of putts. I made over 200 feet of putts at least in a couple days. With that, I feel like I made a lot of those long putts, but I struggled on the short ones. That was dating back to Thursday. Thursday I missed a three- or four-footer for birdie, and it feels like I missed one or two of those almost every day.”
The stats back him up. On putts between four and eight feet, he finished tied for 72nd out of the 76 players to make the cut, converting just eight of his 14 chances from that range. The field average was nearly 70 percent.
Meanwhile, he was elite from outside 10 feet, making just more than 27 percent of his 48 looks. That was sixth best in the field with an average of about 15 percent for the week.
On Sunday, he missed birdie putts of eight feet and six feet on 8 and 9 and par putts of five feet and three-and-a-half feet on 11 and 15.
His decisive miss for birdie on 18 came from 12 feet.
“That really just caught up to me at the end,” he said. “I feel like I had control of the tournament pretty much the whole way, but just a late miss I think on 15 from three or four feet really hurt.”
When he missed his birdie chances on 8 and 9, that was when he said it felt like a turning point.
“That little stretch on 8 and 9, I felt like I could really break away, and it didn’t happen,” Buckley said.
Even after the disappointment, the second-year PGA Tour member was still looking at the positives. He made a 29-footer on 14 for birdie and a 16-footer on 16, which gave him the outright lead before Kim drained his chip shot a hole ahead.
While it was his best chance to log his first PGA Tour win, he’s been in position before. He finished T5 at the Zozo Championship last fall — the third top-10 of his career — and was just a shot off the lead through two rounds at the U.S. Open at Brookline.
“I feel like I had a good fall,” said Buckley, who moved to 14th in the early season FedEx Cup standings. “Obviously, I had somewhat of a chance in Japan. Not necessarily right in the lead or never really had the lead, but I’ve been in situations similar. U.S. Open, again, second to last group on Saturday. I’ve had opportunities and haven’t been able to convert.
“I think confidence is something that I will never lose it just because I’ve seen the way I hit the ball, and I’ve seen the way I can just rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen today, but I think good things are coming.”