Sony Open: Is course specialist Steele set to contend again?

Golfer Brendan Steele
Brendan Steele - looking to contend at Waialae for the third year in-a-row

The PGA Tour hops from Maui to Oahu and from the Sentry to the Sony and our man's back with his comprehensive preview...

"The Plantation Course is far too long for Kisner so his eighth placed finish last week, where he ranked third for Strokes gained Putting and fourth for Putting Average certainly caught the eye."

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 two recent limited field events, the Hero World Challenge in December and last week's Sentry Tournament of Champions, it's the first chance of tournament action since the RSM Classic way back in the middle of November.


Waialae Country Club, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Course Details

Par 70, 7,044 yards
Stroke index in 2021 - 67.97

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.

WAIALAE 2022 2.jpg

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%.

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.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning at 17:00 on Thursday.

Last Six Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

2021 - Kevin Na -21 120.0119/1
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. 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, Kevin Na, only ranked 49th for Driving Accuracy, the 2020 champ, Cameron Smith, ranked only 41st for DA, the 2018 winner, Patton Kizzire, ranked 56th and Justin Thomas broke the PGA Tour's 72-hole scoring record when he won here five years ago ranking only 60th for DA so being arrow-straight is clearly not as vital as Kuchar's words suggest it is.

Power is certainly not an important prerequisite either. Na ranked only 64th for Driving Distance 12 months ago and many a short hitter has prospered here. Waialae is 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 being straight off the tee, Kuchar also ranked first for Greens In Regulation three 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 Na ranked 26th. Over the last four years, putting has been the key to victory...

The last five winners have had a Putting Average ranking of sixth, second, fifth, second and first and although Na only ranked 22nd for Strokes Gained Putting last year, the four winners before him ranked first, third, third and second.

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

Is There an Angle In?

As highlighted in this morning's De-brief, following Cameron Smith's victory at Kapalua, we've now seen six players win both this event at last week's Sentry Tournament of Champions and a number of other of venues on the PGA Tour correlate nicely with Waialae too.

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 Charles Schwab Challenge, and TPC Southwind, which hosts the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational as similar types of test. Last year's first and second, Na and Chris Kirk, have both won at Colonial.

Kevin Na wins the Sony Open.jpg

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 in 2018 and Kuchar's in 2019, form at El Camaleon - home of the World Wide Technology Championship - needs close inspection too.

The first and second in Mexico six years ago, Pat Perez and Gary Woodland, have both been placed here before and even though the World Wide Technology Championship has only been staged 15 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). And it could have easily been five...

The 2013 World Wide Technology Championship 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 is one of the six players to have recently won 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 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.

As many as 16 of the last 23 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 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.

Last week's Sentry winner, Smith, hadn't played at Kapalua before he won here two years ago but the previous six Sony winners had all had a pipe-opener at Kapalua and so too had Na before he won at 120.0119/1 12 months ago.

Like Na, Kuchar, Kizzire and Gomez were all big outsiders so an appearance last week is the clearest pointer we have and they don't have to played brilliantly either.

Gomez had finished sixth in the Sentry before winning here in 2016 and Justin Thomas won both events in consecutive weeks but Na had finished 38th in the Sentry, Kuchar 19th, and Kizzire 15th

A recent win looks a good pointer given four of the last seven winners had won earlier in the wraparound season and 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 nine 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 although Smith has since won in his 20s also, looking to the more experienced stars often pays dividends.

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 in 2020, 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

2021 - Kevin Na tied second - trailing by two 8.27/1
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

The last two winners both trailed by five strokes after the opening round but 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 six 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 900.0899/1 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's one of just five players in 53 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 Na, 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 five years ago) making up ground here is tough.

And as we saw last week at the Plantation Course, where Smith won wire-to-wire, it's even harder to play catch up with no wind and there isn't much in the forecast again this week with Sunday looking like the only slightly blustery day.

Market Leaders

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, five years ago, have both hopped form Maui to Oahu and picked up both trophies and so it's no surprise to see Cameron Smith trading at the head of the market.

Cameron Smith wins the Sentry.jpg

It was impossible not be impressed by his professional wire-to-wire, record-breaking win and if he can continue to putt as well as he did last week, a second Sony Open and second Hawaiian title in two weeks is perfectly possible.

Webb Simpson has a healthy bank of course form and having finished fourth in 2018, third in 2020 and fourth last year, he commands plenty of respect but we haven't seen him since he finished eighth in the RSM Classic back in November and that has to be a bit of a negative.

Sungjae Im performed respectably enough last week when finishing eighth but he'll need to putt better than he did around the Plantation Course and his figures here read an ordinary 16-21-56.


I had quite a lengthy list of potential wagers here but since the withdrawal of Bryson DeChambeau, most of them are bit too short for my liking so I've finished up backing just three...

There aren't too many tracks that are short enough for Kevin Kisner to contend at, but this is certainly one of them and after missing his first four cuts here he's produced respectable form figures that read 5-4-25-69-4-32.

Kisner has won at Colonial and around the Seaside Course in Sea Island and he's been beaten in a playoff at Hilton Head too which is why the track suits his game and he caught the eye last week too.

The Plantation Course is far too long for Kisner so his eighth placed finish last week, where he ranked third for Strokes gained Putting and fourth for Putting Average certainly caught the eye.

Billy Horschel is one of those to have shortened up but at around 55.054/1 he still looks fair value. He won the WGC Match Play as well as the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last year and he putted nicely last week when finishing 23rd in the Sentry.

He's contended at a number of venues that correlate nicely with this one and he played nicely here 12 months ago when finishing seventh.

My only other pre-event pick, Brendan Steele, didn't have the advantage of a pipe opener last week but he's played so well here recently that I couldn't let him go unbacked. He led going into the final round in 2020, when he was matched at a low of 1.111/9, and he was in front again 12 months ago with a round to go when he hit a low of 1.374/11.

He couldn't get the job done on either occasion, finishing second and fourth, but he clearly loves it here and he was runner-up to Hideki Matsuyama in Japan only three starts ago in the ZOZO Championship.

Kevin Kisner @ 46.045/1
Billy Horschel @ 65.064/1
Brendan Steele @ 90.089/1

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

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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