Sony Open: Knox to outfox rivals

Russell Knox has the game to win at Waialae
Russell Knox has the game to win at Waialae

Dave Tindall brings us his analysis and tips for the Sony Open in Hawaii...

"Winners at Waialae always have good Greens In Regulation numbers and that’s the strength of Knox’s game. He was 9th in that category last year and if he can dial his irons in again he has the class to get this done."

Main Bet: Back Russell Knox @ 41.040/1

Each-way terms: ¼ odds, 5 places

Main Bet: Back Russell Knox e/w @ 40/1

Given that 12 of the last 18 (66.66%) Sony Open winners had played in the previous week's SBS Tournament of Champions, I'm certainly happy to give first look to the players who teed it up at the Plantation Course.

Russell Knox ticks that box and, although he finished in the pack (T17), it's not a pre-requisite to have played well.

Jimmy Walker was only T21 at the Plantation when he won at Waialae the following week in 2014 while 2008 champ K.J. Choi had finished 28th out of 31 at the former before finding the course much more to his liking at the Sony Open.

And that's the key with Knox this week. Waialae, a short par 70, is absolutely up his street.

Form at Waialae correlates well with El Camaleon (home of the OHL Classic) and Harbour Town (RSM Classic) and it makes sense why given that they're short, coastal tracks that need guile more than brawn.

Knox lost a play-off at El Camaleon in 2015 and returned to the course last November to finish third after again shooting 14-under 266 on the par 70.

As for Harbour Town, the Scot was runner-up there in April and that followed previous efforts of T18 and T9.

The theory that this course suits him goes out of the window somewhat when you look at his Waialae form which reads MC-13-MC-MC-MC.

However, don't read too much into those. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 he wasn't even ranked in the world's top 200.

In 2015 he was a top 100 player and opening rounds of 66-65 placed him sixth at halfway. Clearly, he had the game for Waialae even though a pair of 69s on the weekend saw Knox slip back to T13.

For anyone backing him this week, Knox gave this reassuring comments when interviewed about the course two years ago. "I love it here. On paper it should fit my game nicely, and last three years it's not, so I've just stayed positive.

"I've just actually played pretty good the last three years, I've just had a couple of horrible moments that cost me, but just kept doing the same thing this year and made a few putts."

As for last year, he simply left himself too much to do. Again, Knox thrived on Friday with a five-under 65 but an opening 73 had caused too much damage.

He'd come in off T27 at the Tournament of Champions 12 months ago and looked rusty but this time there are some better signs.

Knox shot middle rounds of 69-68 (combined seven-under) at the Plantation and was in eighth after 54 holes. It didn't go his way on Sunday due mainly to a triple-bogey at the third hole but overall it was a solid enough week.

From the stats it was encouraging to see him ranked 7th for Strokes Gained Putting as that held him back in 2016 (107th on the year).

Winners at Waialae always have good Greens In Regulation numbers and that's the strength of Knox's game. He was 9th in that category last year and if he can dial his irons in again he has the class to get this done.

To get 40/1 on the World No.19 at a venue which plays to his strengths and he enjoys looks very good business.

Main Bet: Back Jordan Spieth e/w @ 7/1

Jordan Spieth gave this column a small each-way return after galloping through the field on Sunday to take T3 in the SBS and I'm happy to go back in on the American at 7/1.

Spieth's weekend total of 11-under was the lowest final 36 holes in the field and over the four days at the Plantation Course he recorded a tournament-high 26 birdies and an eagle.

That he didn't win or at least put more pressure on eventual champion Justin Thomas was basically down to a few bad holes, his biggest regret a triple-bogey seven at 17 in round two.

Spieth took the positives: "When those birdies and eagles are there, that's a huge confidence boost. That means I'm able to convert, and the other stuff is actually easier to get rid of. The big numbers are easier to dial back."

Although he finished 4.181 in Strokes Gained Putting (ranked 3rd), the double major winner reflected: "I really didn't putt well from inside of 12 feet this whole week. So that's actually a good thing for me. That's very positive going forward. To make that many red numbers and still feel like I didn't have my putter with me on the scoreable range - going to next week with some maybe faster, trickier greens; flatter, tougher-to-read greens."

Spieth has only played the Sony Open once but it's probably smart not to be fooled by that missed cut (70-71).

Typically, he's a golfer who rides momentum well - his major wins came off the back of second and third place finishes respectively - and he's well aware that this week's course should play into his hands.

"(Caddie) Michael (Greller) has told me for the last couple years Waialae is one of the best courses on Tour for you.

"It's almost like your Hilton Head, your Colonial, you have to kind of strike it around both ways and play in the wind, and we feel like that kind of plays to our strength, kind of trickier reads on the greens. You can make putts from mid-range and off a bunch of ridges.

"Last year I didn't play it because I was going overseas. But I think this could be a stop that we'll continue to make."

Spieth is statistically one of the best around on Bermuda greens so everything points to a title bid.

As for 8/1 second favourite Hideki Matsuyama, he's never actually made it to Sunday here after four premature exits.

He was outside the top 125 in the world rankings for his first three missed cuts so he's clearly a different player now but another failure last year is certainly off-putting and not what you expect from a guy at single figure odds even if he's in the form of his life.

Justin Thomas could easily go back-to-back and pull off the Hawaii double but he's not played great the week after his two wins (27th and 23rd) even though the evidence is fairly minimal.

Final Bet: Back Harris English e/w @ 60/1

Having picked two players who don't have strong course form (yet), I'll end by choosing one who does.

Harris English is definitely a huge fan of Waialae and his five cuts out of five include third in 2015, fourth in 2014 and T9 in 2013. He was on course for a fourth straight top 10 last year after opening 68-65 but stalled on the weekend.

"Waialae is one of my favourite golf courses," he said last year.

"It kind of reminds me of growing up in South Georgia, playing on Bermuda grass, firm and fast greens. It's a lot of fun. I love this tournament, and I'll always come back here."

As further proof that he likes this type of test and these style of courses, English's first win on the PGA Tour came at the OHL Classic which was referenced earlier.

He was also runner-up at Colonial last year, a venue where he also cracked the top five on his debut in 2012.

English missed a couple of cuts in November but earlier that month he'd made the top four in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas.

He then rounded off 2016 by winning the Franklin Templeton Shootout alongside Matt Kuchar. English drained an eagle putt at the 17th hole to strike the decisive blow and perhaps it's a good omen that he also won that event at the back end of 2013 before going on to finish fourth in the Sony Open a couple of months later.

One other thing to note is that he's just re-signed with Ping. Both his wins came using their equipment so hopefully the switch from Callaway will reap immediate rewards.

Having slipped outside the world's top 50, English has a definite goal to start his year and this looks an ideal venue for the 27-year-old to make a big statement.

He didn't play last week but we can't have everything and all in all the 60/1 looks value.

Another course horse worth consideration at 50/1 is Chris Kirk (2nd 2015, 5th 2013). He ended his 2016 campaign with four top 10s in his final six starts and a repeat of that form would put him in the mix.

Charles Howell never wins of course but he has no less than seven top-five finishes at the Sony Open.

He posted 13-7-15 in his final three tournaments of 2016 so there's definitely scope to back him in a side market.

You can read fellow Golf columnist Steve Rawlings preview of the 2017 Sony Open behind the link.

Dave's 2016/17 PGA Tour P/L (based on £5 e/w per selection outrights, £10 win top 5s/10s)

Staked: £230
Returned: £652.81
P/L: +£422.81

(After SBS Tournament of Champions)

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