Sony Open: Kirk value for a fifth PGA Tour success, says The Punter

Chris Kirk – one of Steve’s three fancies at the Sony
Chris Kirk – one of Steve’s three fancies at the Sony

A strong line-up will assemble in Hawaii on Thursday for the first full-field event on the PGA Tour of 2016 so read Steve's in-depth preview of the Sony Open here...


“Having a pipe-opener in Kapalua is a significant plus as far as I'm concerned and I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if one of the 22 players in the field that played last week goes on to win. I know the vast majority of the fancied players this week played in the year's opening event but a number of those 11 winners have been big outsiders, so it's definitely an angle-in.”

Tournament History

Dating back to the 1920s, the Sony Open has been a regular on the PGA Tour since the 1960s. It used to be the first full field event on the PGA Tour schedule but for the third year running, it now appears around a third of the way through the season. That means that the PGA Tour graduates have already had a few starts to bed themselves in but not lately. With the exception of those that played in last week's Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the vast majority of the field are playing for the first time in at least a month.


Venue

Waialae Country Club, Honolulu, Hawaii.


Course Details

Par 70, 7,044 yards
Stroke index in 2015 - 69.01

Designed by Seth Raynor, Waialae is a short, tree-lined, wind-affected course with small Bermuda Greens. Water is in play on just three holes and the greens usually run at around 11 on the stimpmeter.

As you'll see below, with the list of winners, scores can vary tremendously depending on how penal the rough is and more importantly, how strong the wind blows. Only very light winds are forecast for this year's renewal.


TV Coverage

Live at midnight on Sky Sports all four days, starting on Thursday.


Last Five Winners

2015 - Jimmy Walker -23
2014 - Jimmy Walker -17
2013 - Russell Henley -24
2012 - Johnson Wagner -13
2011 - Mark Wilson -16


What Will it Take to Win The Sony Open?

Jimmy Walker ranked eighth for Driving Distance last year and first in 2014 but length of the tee isn't an essential prerequisite. Waialae isn't a long track and the shorter hitters can and do prosper. Despite the fact that it's quite tight off the tee, Driving Accuracy hasn't been a key stat in recent years either though. Only two of the top 25 ranked inside the top-10 for DA 12 months ago and the last six winners have ranked 25th, 15th, 58th, 2nd, 50th and 13th.

Hitting it arrow straight off the tee helps but it isn't imperative but finding greens is. The last 14 winners have all ranked inside the top-12 for Greens In Regulation and Walker ranked first for that stat last year.


Is There an Angle In?

There are a number of venues on the PGA Tour that correlate well with Waialae. The Seaside Course in Sea Island, Georgia, which hosts the RSM Classic, Harbour Town Links in South Carolina and El Camaleon, home of the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Mexico are all short seaside tracks with tricky, grainy greens but I'd also consider both Colonial Country Club, venue of the Crowne Plaza Invitational, and TPC Southwind, which hosts the St. Jude Classic, as similar types of test.

If I had to pick one of those venues that stood out more than the others I'd plump for El Camaleon. Having only been staged nine times in total, the OHL Classic is still in its infancy but we've already had two players win both events, and at a very big price here (Mark Wilson and Johnson Wagner). And it could have easily been three - the 2014 OHL Classic winner, Harris English, has a good record here too. He finished third last year and fourth in 2014, when he faltered late on, having traded at a low of 1.674/6.

When Russell Henley won here three years ago, in his first PGA Tour event, he'd didn't only break the tournament scoring record, he also confounded a number of trends. He was the first winner since 1996 not to have played Waialae Country Club at least twice and he was the first winner in his 20s since Paul Stankowski in 1997. Experience, and experience of the course, is usually an essential prerequisite.

Following Walker's win 12 months ago, 11 of the last 17 Sony winners have played the Hyundai Tournament of Champions the week before they won here. And it's worth bearing in mind that in the events staged between 2012 and 2015, the HTOC finished on either a Monday or a Tuesday, which should have been quite a disadvantage - especially in 2013 when Henley won. Bad weather had meant the HTOC was reduced to three rounds and it didn't finish until the Tuesday!

As highlighted in last week's preview, Zach Johnson felt that although Kapalua and Waialae are very different they have a similar feel, especially in relation to playing in the usual trade winds.

Having a pipe-opener in Kapalua is a significant plus as far as I'm concerned and I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if one of the 22 players in the field that played last week goes on to win. I know the vast majority of the fancied players this week played in the year's opening event but a number of those 11 winners have been big outsiders, so it's definitely an angle-in.


Is There an Identikit Winner?

A quirky and probably insignificant fact is that only five men have won the title twice (Hubert Green, Lanny Wadkins, Corey Pavin, Ernie Els and now Jimmy Walker) and rather bizarrely, Wadkins is the only one of the five not to win his two titles back-to-back. Nobody has won the title three times, although Ernie Els came very close to the three-peat in 2005, when he finished second to Vijay Singh, beaten a stroke, with a final round 62, but given he won by fully nine strokes (a tournament record margin) last year and that he finished a respectable 10th last week, it would be a brave man to rule out Walker achieving the feat.

Walker was a well-fancied 16/1 shot 12 months ago, but he was matched at 55.054/1 the year before and that's not unusual. Outsiders have a very decent record here so if you fancy someone trading at a big price, go for it.


In-Play Tactics

Waialae is another venue where coming from off the pace is extremely hard. Every winner this century bar one, Vijay Singh in 2005, has been inside the top-ten at halfway (Singh was 11th) and seven of the last ten winners were already in the top-five after round one. Singh was four back through three rounds in 2005 (Ernie was unlucky wasn't he) but every other winner this century has been within two of the lead with a round to go.


Market Leaders

Bidding for the hat-trick and fresh off a 10th place finish at Kapalua, where he shot a bogey-free nine-under-par 64 in round three, Jimmy Walker has every right to head the market but there are negatives.

He hasn't been playing brilliantly of late, his other three rounds last week were in the 70s, and he only ranked tied 23rd for Greens in Regulation last week. This venue clearly suits his eye but I'm inclined to think that the 64 last week was a one-off and that trying to win it for a third year in-a-row is a big ask.

Kevin Kisner began last week well but faded as the week wore on - eventually finishing ninth. And his form figures at Waialae are woeful - he's missed four out of four cuts. In theory, this course should be right up his street and I suspect it's certainly better suited to his game than last week's long track, but it's hard to pile into someone looking for just their second PGA Tour win with course form that poor and I'm more than happy to look elsewhere.

Last year's Open Champ, and 2009 Sony winner, Zach Johnson, will have his supporters but he was poor last week with his new bats and I'm happy to swerve him. Zach switched to brand new manufacturers PXG recently and he put his new clubs into action for the first time last week but he couldn't break the top-20 at a venue he won at two years ago.

Matt Kuchar's last four outings here have produced form figures reading 5-5-8-3 but he hasn't won on the PGA Tour since April 2014 and at 37, I suspect he's on the wane. He did win in Fiji in October but I wouldn't give that too much credence and given he's never been one to trust in-the-mix, I'm more than happy to leave him out of my calculations.

Adam Scott has played well here a couple of times and he was in decent form in Australia before Christmas but like Kuchar, he hasn't won in a while and he's not always easy to get across the line.

After a great effort at Kapalua, where he finished third, Brandt Snedeker has to be respected but given his form can be very in-and-out and that he's only played here twice, and that he missed the cut on both occasions, he's just a fraction short. He's the one towards the head of the market I came closest to backing though.


Selections

There's plenty of depth to this field so I've tried not to get too involved but I have found three to back and they all played last week.

Chris Kirk, along with Zach Johnson, changed manufacturers to PXG but his figures were quite good at Kapalua. He ranked 12th for Driving Accuracy and more importantly, fifth for Greens In Regulation, when finishing down the field in 24th. I'm not unduly worried by how far he was beat as that's not his sort of test and he's never fared well there but he has a fine set of form figures here, reading 30-38-5-2-26 and he knows how to win. He's won a PGA Tour event in four of the last five years and I thought he looked over-priced at 55.054/1.

Fabian Gomez's form at Waialae isn't great. In three visits he's missed the cut twice and finished 67th but he's in the form of his life if last week's tied sixth behind Jordan Spieth is anything to go by and he looks well worth risking at a triple-figure price. He didn't putt brilliantly last week but the rest of his figures were very good and that was on his first ever visit to Kapalua. He won in his native Argentina in November and he won last year's St Jude Classic with consummate ease. He's no spring chicken at 37 but he's clearly in good heart and this course really should suit him perfectly.

And finally, I've risked a few pounds on the unexposed recent impressive Sanderson Farms Championship winner, Peter Malnati, who also finished tied sixth on his Kapalua debut last week. I thought the SFC venue, the Country Club of Jackson, wasn't dissimilar a test to this and I can see Malnati improving on his 38th placed finish here of two years ago. He's a far more mature player now and he could easily continue from where he left off last week. He's a terrific putter and I thought he too was value at triple-figure price.


Selections:

Chris Kirk @ 55.054/1
Fabian Gomez @ 110.0109/1
Peter Malnati @ 110.0109/1


I'll be back tomorrow with previews for the Joburg Open and the EurAsia Cup.


*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

The Sony Open 2017 Betting Preview is behind the link.

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