Sony Open Preview: Mexican form the key to success

Golfer Brendon Todd
Brendon Todd - fancied by the Punter in Hawaii

The PGA Tour hops from last week's Sentry Tournament at Maui to Oahu for the Sony Open and our man's back with his comprehensive preview...

"Brendon Todd was always going to find the Plantation Course a bit too long (ranked dead last for DD) so his 13th placed finish was a cracking effort and a perfect warm-up."

Tournament History

The Sony Open dates aback to th 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 who weren't involved in last week's Sentry Tournament of Champions, it's the first chance of tournament action since the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico in the first week of December.


Waialae Country Club, Honolulu, Hawaii

Course Details

Par 70, 7,044 yards
Stroke index in 2020 - 70.51

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 were a couple of changes to the course prior to the 2019 renewal. A fairway bunker was removed on the 10th and the green was doubled in size, and the par five finishing hole had its green increased in size by approximately 33%.

WAIALAE 2021 2.jpg

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.

It was pretty blowy last year, especially over the first two days, but early forecasts suggest we'll see a largely benign week this time around, so expect some low scores.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

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

Last Five Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

2020 - Cameron Smith -11 65.064/1 (playoff)
2019 - Matt Kuchar -22 48.047/1
2018 - Patton Kizzire -17 85.084/1 (playoff)
2017 - Justin Thomas -27 17.016/1
2016 - Fabian Gomez -20 110.0109/1

What Will it Take to Win the Sony Open?

When Matt Kuchar won here two years ago, he ranked fourth for Driving Accuracy and it was interesting to hear how important he thought it was to be straight off the tee when comparing this course to El Camaleón (more on that below).

"Both courses are very tight, very demanding driving golf courses," said Kuchar. "That would probably be the biggest similarity."

Kuchar may consider straight driving as important but the stats don't back that up at all. Last year's winner, Cameron Smith, only ranked 41st for Driving Accuracy, the 2018 winner, Patton Kizzire, ranked 56th and Justin Thomas broke the PGA Tour's 72-hole scoring record when he won here four years ago, ranking only 60th for DA so being arrow-straight is clearly not as vital as Kuchar's words suggest.

Power is certainly not an important prerequisite either. Many a short hitter has prospered here and it's one of the few traditional old courses on the PGA Tour where length is simply not required, so the driving stats can be ignored.

As well as been straight off the tee, Kuchar also ranked first for Greens In Regulation two years ago and he was the 17th winner in 18 years to rank inside the top-12 for GIR. That's a really important stat to consider but the 2018 winner, Kizzire, only ranked 23rd for GIR and it wasn't vital last year either.

Nobody inside the top-10 ranked any better than 14th for GIR and, over the last four years, putting has been the key to victory.

The last four winners have had a Putting Average ranking of second, fifth, second and first and over the last two years, the majority of placed players have putted brilliantly too. Kevin Kisner, who had a PA ranking of 32nd, was the only player inside the top six not to rank inside the top-eight for PA 12 months ago and the first seven home two years ago had Putting Average rankings of fifth, second, eighth, 21st, fourth, 10th and 12th.

The last five winners have all ranked inside the top four for Par 4 Scoring.

Is There an Angle 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 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. Both Fabian Gomez and David Toms have won both tournaments fairly recently. But following Kizzire's victory in 2018 and Kuchar's in 2019, there's absolutely no doubt as to which venue correlates the best and that's El Camaleon.

The first and second in Mexico five years ago, Pat Perez and Gary Woodland, have both been placed here before and, even though the Mayakoba Golf Classic has only been staged 14 times in total, we've already had four players win both events, and at a very big prices here (Kuchar, Kizzire, Mark Wilson and Johnson Wagner). It could have easily been five...

Last week's winner and the 2013 Mayakoba Golf Classic winner, Harris English, has a good record here. He finished third in 2015 and fourth in 2014, having traded at a low of 1.674/6 and English is also another former winner of the St. Jude Classic (now known as the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational).

Zach Johnson has won both this event and last week's Sentry Tournament of Champions and that's always a good place to start. Back in 2015, Zach offered some insight as to why TOC winners do well here when he said that although the tracks are very different in style, the winds are very similar and he felt they played alike as a result.

Along with the trade winds, another similarity between the two venues is the green speeds. Kapalua's greens are huge and undulating whereas here they are small and flat in comparison. But both sets of greens run slowly when compared 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 who played the week before at Kapalua have such a strong record here.

As many as 15 of the last 22 Sony Open winners played the Sentry Tournament of Champions the week before they won here. 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 Russell Henley won here (hadn't played in the TOC). Bad weather meant the event was reduced to three rounds and it didn't finish until the Tuesday! That may explain why Kuchar was the only player that played in the TOC to finish inside the top-seven here.

Smith hadn't played at Kapalua last year but the previous six Sony winners all had and that included big outsiders Kuchar, Kizzire and Gomez, so an appearance last week is the clearest pointer we have. Smith may not have appeared the week before but he didn't come into the event cold as he'd played in a couple of tournaments in his native Australia just before Christmas, as well as the Presidents Cup.

Recent form looks key and a fairly recent win looks a really good pointer too, given four of the last six winners had won earlier in the wraparound season.

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 eight 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 and when Jimmy Walker took the title the first time, in 2014, his figures read MC-61-32-MC-4-MC-26.

Smith had somewhat modest course form figures last year, reading MC-27-18-22 and when Johnson Wagner took the title in 2012, his previous course form numbers read 34-MC-MC-MC-MC.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

2020 - Cameron Smith solo 2nd - trailing by three 5.49/2
2019 - Matt Kuchar led by two strokes 1.684/6
2018 - Patton Kizzire T2nd - trailing by one 5.14/1
2017 - Justin Thomas led by seven strokes 1.141/7
2016 - Fabian Gomez solo 5th - trailing by four 55.054/1

In-play Tactics

Smith was tied for 31st and five off the lead after round one 12 months ago but he did well to shoot 70 after being four-over-par through just two holes. After a second round 65 he sat third and just one off the lead at halfway and he was second with a round to go - trailing by three. The third round leader, Brendan Steele, was matched at just 1.111/9 in-running before getting beat by Smith in extra time.

We've seen five players win here wire-to-wire this century so frontrunners have a decent record. In addition, Brandt Snedeker was beaten in extra-time five years ago, after leading through rounds one, two and three, Russell Henley won from the front, having sat second after round one, and Kuchar sat third and two off the lead after round one before leading after rounds two and three.
History suggests it's hard to win here from off the pace here but it's certainly not impossible...

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 900.00899/1 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's one of just five players in 52 years to win from that many strokes adrift through 54 holes.

Gomez shot an eight-under-par 62 to catch Snedeker and we very nearly witnessed an even more remarkable comeback win in 2018 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 this century (other than Smith and Gomez) 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 four years ago) making up ground here is tough.

Market Leaders

Webb Simpson has a healthy bank of course form and having finished fourth in 2018 and third last year, he's certainly trending in the right direction but he's not for me this week.

Simpson tested positive for Covid-19 just a few days after Christmas and his 17th at Kapalua last week wasn't a bright enough performance to tempt me in here.

Collin Morikawa, who finished 21st on debut last year, is trading at 17.016/1 and that's less than half the price he traded at this time last week. Morikawa sat third, just one off the lead, with a round to go at the Sentry TOC but his poor putting ultimately caught up with him in round four and he eventually dropped to tied seventh after a level-par 73 on Sunday. Given how important putting has been over the last couple of years here, his lacklustre work on the greens is a concern and others are preferred.

Daniel Berger looks a great fit. He's won at both Colonial Country Club and TPC Southwind (twice), he finished 10th last week at Kapalua and he has the sort of previous course form, reading 13-42-45-14-28, that many a winner here has had coming into the tournament. He's never threatened to win but he's getting to know the gaff. I'm really concerned about his putting of late, though, and that's enough to put me off. In three of his last four tournaments, he's averaged 1.74 or more and that won't be good enough here.

In 2015, Jimmy Walker came very close to winning both the Sentry TOC and this event in the same year. He successfully defended this title a week after trading at just 1.091/11 at Kapalua but had he prevailed in extra-time against Patrick Reed and still doubled up here (highly likely given he won by nine!) then three players this century would have won here the week after winning the Sentry TOC. Ernie Els in 2005, and Justin Thomas, three years ago, have both hopped form Maui to Oahu and picked up both trophies and I see absolutely no reason why Harris English can't do the same.

Harris English wins TOC.jpg

As he's already demonstrated, with three top-10s, this venue is a better fit than the Plantation Course, he's clearly in the form of his life and he's the one to beat. The only negative is how mentally fatigued is here? Last week's win was his first in seven years and it was done the hard way - wire-to-wire.


Kevin Kisner was top of my list after his playoff defeat in the RSM Classic in his final appearance in 2021 and after his decent effort at Kapalua last week - where he putted quite nicely.

The Plantation Course is far too long for Kisner but this is right up his alley and had he putted a bit better 12 months ago he'd have walked away with the trophy. I thought the 40.039/1 available yesterday was more than fair given his current wellbeing.

Like Kisner, Brendon Todd was always going to find the Plantation Course a bit too long (ranked dead last for DD) so his 13th placed finish was a cracking effort and a perfect warm-up. He's been playing nicely for some time now and his final appearance in 2021 was a fair effort too when he finished eighth at the all-important Mayakoba Golf Classic when defending the title.

His course form figures read 39-13-20-44-MC-21 so they're not spectacular but he's putting brilliantly and this venue is perfect for him.

Kevin Kisner @ 40.039/1
Brendon Todd @ 60.059/1

I'll be back later with my outside fancies with the Find Me a 100 Winner column.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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