Sony Open: Kapalua warm-up could be the key to a Waialae win

Golfer Scott Piercy
Scott Piercy - playing at his favourite venue this week

The PGA Tour hops from Maui to Oahu for the first full field event of the year. Our man looks at what it takes to win at Waialae...

"The last five winners here have all played Kapalua (including big outsiders Patton Kizzire and Fabian Gomez) so an appearance last week is the clearest pointer we have."

Tournament History

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 limited field tournaments at the end of 2018, or last week's Sentry Tournament of Champions, it's the first chance of tournament action since the RSM Classic almost two months ago.

This is the 21st year that Sony has sponsored the tournament and they've agreed to sponsor it until at least 2022.


Waialae Country Club, Honolulu, Hawaii

Course Details

Par 70, 7,044 yards
Stroke index in 2018 - 68.9

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.

There have been a couple of changes to the course since last year. A fairway bunker has been removed on the 10th and the green has been doubled in size and the par five finishing hole has had its green increased in size by approximately 33%.

As you'll see below, with the list of winners, scores can vary quite considerably depending on how penal the rough is and more importantly, how strong the wind blows.

The forecast suggests light winds all week this year so we can expect a low-scoring birdie-fest.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning at midnight on Thursday

Last Five Winners

2018 - Patton Kizzire -17 (playoff)
2017 - Justin Thomas -27
2016 - Fabian Gomez -20 (playoff)
2015 - Jimmy Walker -23
2014 - Jimmy Walker -17

What Will it Take to Win the Sony Open?

As demonstrated perfectly by last year's winner, Patton Kizzire, who ranked 53rd for Driving Distance and 56th for Driving Accuracy, 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 two years ago ranking 60th for Driving Accuracy so being arrow-straight is clearly not essential.

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 the fact that Kizzire ranked only 23rd was a bit of a surprise. Like Thomas, Kizzire putted well, ranking second for PA but I'd still value GIR more highly given the second, third and fourth home 12 months ago ranked fourth, second and eighth for that stat.

Are There Any 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 Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico, are all short seaside tracks with tricky, grainy greens and I'd also consider both Colonial Country Club, venue of the Crowne Plaza Invitational, and TPC Southwind, which hosts the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational in July, as similar types of test.

A number of players have won either this or what was formerly the St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind (now a WGC event) and finished runner-up at the other event, and both Fabian Gomez and David Toms have won both tournaments fairly recently but following Kizzire's victory last year, I'm in little doubt as to which venue correlates the best - El Camaleon.

The first and second in Mexico three years ago, Pat Perez and Gary Woodland, have both been placed here before and even though the Mayakoba Golf Classic has only been staged 12 times in total, we've already had three players win both events, and at a very big price here (Kizzire, Mark Wilson and Johnson Wagner). And it could have easily been four or five...

Matt Kuchar, who won the Mayakoba Golf Classic in November, has finished eighth, fifth twice, fourth and third here and the Mayakoba Golf Classic winner, Harris English, has a good record here too. He finished third in 2015 and fourth in 2014, having traded at a low of 1.674/6. English is also another former winner of the St. Jude Classic (now known as the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational).

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 as a good place to look as any 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 greens run slowly in comparison to most PGA Tour venues.

The similar greens' speed, being familiar with the trade winds and enjoying the advantage of a very recent outing all go a long way to explain why those that played the week before at Kapalua have such a strong record here.

Following Kizzire's victory 12 months ago, 14 of the last 20 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 five winners here have all played Kapalua (including big outsiders Kizzire and Fabian Gomez) so 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.

Kizzire, who missed the cut in his only previous visit (in 2016) and Russell Henley, who won here six years ago in his first PGA Tour event, are the only winners since 1996 not to have played Waialae Country Club at least twice previously and Henley was the first winner in his 20s here since Paul Stankowski way back in 1997 so look to the more experienced stars.

Course experience looks important but course form isn't vital. In addition to Kizzire, who had that single MC prior to winning, 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 here with previous course form numbers that read 34-MC-MC-MC-MC.

In-Play Tactics

History suggests it's very hard to win here from off the pace and we've seen five players win wire-to-wire this century. In addition, Brandt Snedeker was beaten in extra time three years ago, after leading through rounds one, two and three, and Russell Henley won from the front, having sat second after round one.

Fabian Gomez edged out Snedeker in 2016 and his victory went against the in-running trends. He was tied for 68th, six off the lead, and matched at 900.0899/1 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 48 years to win from that far back through 54 holes.

Gomez shot an eight-under-par 62 to catch Snedeker and we very nearly witnessed an even more remarkable comeback win last year when James Hahn, who was 14th and seven back with a round to go, also shot 62 to catch Kizzire before losing a playoff at the sixth extra hole.

It's clearly possible to win from off the pace but it's highly unlikely and Johnson Wagner, who sat tied 30th and five back after round one in 2012, is the only other winner (other than Gomez) this century not to be within four strokes of the lead after the opening round. With low scores so prevalent (Justin Thomas shot 59 in round one two years ago) making up ground here is tough. Gomez was also the furthest adrift any winner has been this century after any round.

Market Leaders

It's not often I look at the first five in the betting and give them all a really strong chance but that's the case here.

The 2017 winner, Justin Thomas, is a very worthy favourite. He's shot rounds of 59 and 61 here and he warmed up nicely last week when finishing third.

With very strong course and current form, the unlucky loser on Sunday, Gary Woodland, has an extremely obvious chance and Bryson DeChambeau putted superbly last week and has to be respected.

Jordan Spieth, who was third here behind Thomas two years ago, was surprisingly winless last year so didn't play last week but he could very easily be tuned up and primed to get back to winning ways and it's impossible to crab the chances of Marc Leishman. The Aussie is in fine fettle, and he too has course and current form. He was ninth in 2013 and fifth 12 months later, so we know he can play the venue and he finished fourth last week.

Those five players can be backed at 2/1 combined in the Big Guns v The Field market on the Betfair Sportsbook and that's not an unattractive cover bet.


This event has been very kind to me over the years and especially lately given I backed Gomez at 110.0109/1 three years ago and Kizzire 12 months ago at 85.084/1 and I'm going in again with a number of similarly profiled players.

The most obvious candidate, given the filters I've used, is probably Matt Kuchar. The Mayakoba Golf Classic winner is a vastly experienced player with excellent course form and he warmed up last week at Kapalua. He certainly doesn't win often enough but I was surprised to get matched at 60.059/1.

Zach Johnson, who also did me a favour here back in 2009 at around the 20/1 mark, didn't win last year so he missed out on the all important warm-up last week but he finished 2018 with a decent seventh at Sea Island and like Spieth, he could easily be revved up and raring to go. He could also be refreshed with a brand-new caddie having recently split with long-term looper, Damon Green, who was by Zach's side for 15 years. I thought 65.064/1 was just too big to resist.

Scott Piercy started slowly last week but he finished the weekend with a pair of promising 69s. He arrives in decent nick and he makes no secret of his love for this course. He could arguably have won both this event and the Mayakoba Golf Classic previously. He was second here in 2015 and he held a great chance to win in Mexico in 2016 before eventually finishing fourth. And he finished sixth last year behind Kuchar after firing a 62 in round four.

I've thrown a few pounds at the defending champ and the 2016 winner, Gomez, for old time's sake but the most interesting big-priced outsider is probably Brice Garnett. The 35-year-old finally got off the mark at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship at a venue not too dissimilar to this one last year so played Kapalua for the first time last week. Rounds of 72, 73 and 72 saw him start slowly but he finished with a 68 to finish 19th and although his form figures here are uninspiring, reading 38-MC-MC, he finished fifth at the Mayakoba Golf Classic behind Kuchar. If there's to be another whopping great priced winner, Garnett fits the mould at a tasty 250.0249/1.

Patton Kizzire @ 55.054/1
Matt Kuchar @ 60.059/1
Zach Johnson @ 65.064/1
Scott Piercy @ 70.069/1
Brice Garnett @ 250.0249/1
Fabian Gomez @ 600.0599/1

I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog after the opening round.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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