The PGA Tour hops from Kapalua to Honolulu for the first full field event of the year and our man's been busy looking at what it might take to win at Waialae. Read his comprehensive preview here...
“Following Thomas' win 12 months ago, 13 of the last 19 Sony Open winners have played the Sentry Tournament of Champions the week before they won here.”
The Sony Open dates all the way back to the 1920s and it's been a regular on the PGA Tour since 1965. It's the first full field event of the year and for those that weren't involved in the Hero Challenge at the end of November of the Sentry Tournament of Champions last week, it's the first chance of tournament action in almost two months.
This is the 20th year that Sony have sponsored the tournament and they've agreed to sponsor it until at least 2022.
Waialae Country Club, Honolulu, Hawaii.
Par 70, 7,044 yards
Stroke index in 2017 - 68.31
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 quite a bit depending on how penal the rough is and more importantly, how strong the wind blows.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning at midnight on Thursday.
Last Five Winners
2017 - Justin Thomas -27
2016 - Fabian Gomez -20 (playoff)
2015 - Jimmy Walker -23
2014 - Jimmy Walker -17
2013 - Russell Henley -24
What Will it Take to Win the Sony Open?
What you do off the tee at Waialae is almost irrelevant. Many a short hitter has prospered here so distance isn't required, and Justin Thomas broke the PGA Tour's 72-hole scoring record 12 months ago ranking 60th for Driving Accuracy so being arrow-straight is clearly not an essential prerequisite.
Thomas won so easily because he putted brilliantly. He had the number one Putting Average ranking for the week and he also found plenty of greens. He ranked 12th for Greens In Regulation and he was the 16th winner in-a-row here to rank inside the top-12 for that stat so that's the main one to concentrate on.
Possible Angles In?
A number of venues on the PGA Tour correlate nicely with Waialae. The Seaside Course in Sea Island, Georgia, which hosts the RSM Classic, Harbour Town Links in South Carolina, home of the RBC Heritage, and El Camaleon, the venue for 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.
A number of players have won either this or the St. Jude Classic and finished runner-up at the other event and both Fabian Gomez and David Toms have won both tournaments fairly recently.
If I had to pick one of those venues as the one that correlates best though I'd probably plump for El Camaleon. The first and second in Mexico two years ago, Pat Perez and Gary Woodland, have both been placed here before and even though the OHL Classic has only been staged 11 times in total, 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. He finished third in 2015 and fourth in 2014, having traded at a low of [1.67]. English is also another former winner of the St. Jude Classic.
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 and a number of players have won both tournaments so last week is a good place to look for clues.
Along with the trade winds, another similarity between the two venues is the green speeds. Kapalua's greens are huge and undulating whereas the ones here are small and flat in comparison but both sets of surfaces run slowly in comparison to most PGA Tour venues.
The greens were as low as nine on the stimpmeter last week and we won't see anything much over 11 this week. Making that slight adjustment on the greens' speed, being familiar with the trade winds and enjoying the advantage of a very recent outing all go a long way to explaining why those that played the week before at Kapalua have such a strong record here.
Following Thomas' win 12 months ago, 13 of the last 19 Sony Open winners have played the Sentry 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 Sentry TOC finished on either a Monday or a Tuesday, which was quite a disadvantage - especially in 2013 when Henley won. Bad weather meant the event was reduced to three rounds and it didn't finish until the Tuesday! That may explain why Matt Kuchar was the only player that played in the TOC to finish inside the top-seven here.
The last four winners here have all played Kapalua (including big outsider Fabian Gomez) and two or three players that featured at Kapalua have been placed here in each of the last four renewals. An appearance last week is the clearest pointer we have.
Historically, this has been an excellent event for big-priced winners but previous course experience has still been almost essential.
Russell Henley, who won here five years ago in his first PGA Tour event, is the only winner since 1996 not to have played Waialae Country Club at least twice previously and he was the first winner in his 20s since Paul Stankowski in 1997.
Thomas has since won in his 20s but every winner since Henley has also played here at least twice but course form isn't vital. Gomez's course form figures read MC-67-MC prior to his 2016 victory, when Jimmy Walker took the title the first time, in 2014, his figures read MC-61-32-MC-4-MC-26, and in 2012, Johnson Wagner won with previous course form numbers that read 34-MC-MC-MC-MC. Course experience is very important, but course form isn't essential.
History suggests it's very hard to win here from off the pace and Thomas certainly confirmed that 12 months ago. He opened the event with a spectacular 59 and led all the way after that but it was a very different story in 2016.
Gomez's victory very much went against the in-running trends. He was tied for 68th, six off the lead, and matched at [900.0] after round one, and he was still five back at halfway. He sat fifth after three rounds but he was still four adrift and he was just the fifth player in 46 years to win from that far back through 54 holes.
Gomez was also the furthest adrift any winner has been this century after any round. Johnson Wagner sat tied 30th and five back after round one in 2012 but every other winner this century has been within four after the opening round. It's probably best to ignore the Gomez anomaly and concentrate on the early pacesetters.
As highlighted above, debutants don't fare well here, so we perhaps shouldn't be too surprised that Jordan Spieth missed the cut on debut two years ago.
It's a course that should suit him though and he finished strongly to take third 12 months ago but his putting must be a concern after last week. Nobody hit more greens than Spieth at Kapalua but he only ranked 19th (of 33 for putting) and that's enough of a negative to put me off given his short odds.
Defending champ Thomas didn't defend brilliantly last week in Kapalua and he makes little appeal either. He finished the event nicely with a six-under-par 67, which included an eagle at his final hole, but his stats weren't great and I don't like the fact that he's lost his caddie. Usual bag-rat, Jimmy Johnson, is taking a break while he recovers from plantar fasciitis. Phil Mickelson's old caddie, Jim 'Bones' Mackay, is stepping in and he'll probably be an upgrade on Thomas's father, who stepped in at halfway last week, but Bones hasn't been to Waialae this century and I think it's a sizable negative.
Marc Leishman looks plenty short enough given his wins to runs ratio and the fact that he went AWOL again in-contention last week and last week's pick, Brian Harman, looks way too short too at around [23.0]. I know he contended all week and finished an impressive third but he was available at almost three times the price in a field a third the size last week.
Kevin Kisner ticks all the boxes and he has finished fifth and fourth here in each of the last two years (shot 60 in round three last year) but he looks short enough too given he ranked 26th (of 33) for GIR last week. He'll have to hit his irons an awful lot better this week if he's going to contend.
Of all the stats, trends, and angles in, the one that I favour over the rest is an outing at Kapalua last week and all four of my picks opened their accounts for 2018 in the Sentry TOC.
I'm quite surprised Daniel Berger is as big as he is given he finished 11th last week (ranking third for GIR) and that he's a back-to-back winner of the St Jude Classic. He's my strongest fancy and [44.0] is a very fair price.
Players Champ, Si Woo Kim, was fourth here on debut two years ago and he finished a respectable tenth at Kapalua last week. Patton Kizzire, who won the aforementioned OHL Classic nicely in November missed the cut on debut 12 months ago and he didn't put brilliantly last week when finishing 15th but I thought [85.0] was juicy enough for him.
And finally, I've thrown a few pounds at Chris Stroud, who's vigorous preparations for last week's event paid off when he finished 11th. Stroud played courses with slow greens to ready himself for last week and it worked as he ranked second for Putting Average.
Daniel Berger @ [44.0]
Si Woo Kim @ [60.0]
Patton Kizzire @ [85.0]
Chris Stroud @ [160.0]
I'll be back tomorrow with a preview of the EurAsia Cup which begins on Friday.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter