Even though the Sony Open is the first full-field event of the season, now is it not the time to get caught up in the “rookie wave” that is about to hit Honolulu if you are looking for a winner this week. Experience pays at this old-style course and the last player to win this event in their 20’s was Paul Stankowski in 1997. The last first-time winner here was Jerry Kelly in 2002. Ted Potter, Jr. (T13), Sang-Moon Bae and Bud Cauley (T30 for both) were the lowest rookies in 2012 and Chris Kirk (T30) was the low rookie in 2011.
Since 1999, winners here have included Ryder Cuppers and major winners such as Jeff Sluman, Paul Azinger, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, David Toms and Zach Johnson. The “other” winners, besides Jerry Kelly at the time, Brad Faxon, Paul Goydos, K.J.Choi, Mark Wilson and Johnson Wagner all have multiple wins on TOUR in their careers. Also remember that nine of the last 14 winners here played the week before at Kapalua. #Trend.
Ernie Els is the only player to win the HTOC and the Sony Open in the same season.
“Young” Guns versus “Middle” Guns versus “Old” Guns
In 46 events on TOUR in 2012 the “Young” guns knocked out the “Middle” and “Old” guns, 25-18-3.
In one event this year, the 28-year old Johnson starts the “Young” guns off in the right direction. I would be shocked if this was the last time I typed his name in this column in 2013.
"Since 2011 52% of the PGA Tour winners have been 32 years old or younger." - Billy Schroeder, PGA Tour VP Player Relations.
Well, that means just under half have been OVER 32 years of age!
Last year’s winners:
For the “Young”, age during their victory in ( ), Johnson Wagner (31), Brandt Snedeker TWICE (31), Kyle Stanley (24), Bill Haas (29), John Huh (21), Hunter Mahan TWICE (29) Rory McIlroy FOUR times (22), Justin Rose (31), Rickie Fowler (23), Dustin Johnson (27), Webb Simpson (26), Marc Leishman (29), Ted Potter, Jr. (28), Scott Stallings (27), Keegan Bradley (26), Sergio Garcia (32), Nick Watney TWICE (31),Ryan Moore (29) and Jonas Blixt (28) were your winners.
The “Middle” guys are Mark Wilson (37), George McNeill (36), Luke Donald (34), Tiger Woods THRICE (36), Bubba Watson (33), Carl Pettersson (34), Ben Curtis (34), Matt Kuchar (33), Jason Dufner TWICE (35), Zach Johnson TWICE (36), Scott Piercy (33) J.J. Henry (37), Tommy Gainey (37) and now Ian Poulter (37) were victorious.
Steve Stricker (44), Phil Mickelson (41) and Ernie Els (42) are the only “Old” guys to hit the board in 2012. At least 33% of their wins were majors! Stricker is the only “Old” dude teeing it up this week, although Wilson, McNeill, Henry, Gainey and Poulter are closing in on the big 4-0.
Seth Raynor’s design is the first of two (White Sulfur Springs; The Greenbrier Classic) of his masterpieces on the 2013 TOUR season. Waialae opened for play in February of 1927 but it wasn’t until 1965 that the TOUR showed up for play. Waialae is known for its narrow fairways and doglegs that require the players to work the golf ball in both directions. Those who miss fairways will have to deal with 2.5-inch deep rough when judging their approach shots. Once on the green, the undulation will make the premium putters drool and the average putters sweat.
Waialae Country Club ranked 28th hardest of the 49 courses used in the 2012 PGA TOUR season. The average winning score over the last 15 years has been right around 15-under-par so the players will still have to produce birdies and avoid bogeys to win. Even though Waialae has ranked near the top as one of the toughest course on TOUR to hit fairways, Johnson Wagner, who ended 2012 152nd on TOUR in driving accuracy, has also shown that you do not have to be an accurate driver of the golf ball to be successful here. He makes putts for a living and that’s what he did to be successful here in 2012. Firm and undulating greens have a way of balancing out the ball-strikers and the putters on TOUR.
Bogeys beware as well as Wilson, the winner in 2011, went his last 36 holes (all on Sunday!) without a making bogey and last year’s winner, Johnson Wagner, didn’t make a bogey on the back nine in four rounds.
After scouring the data, form and history, these are the players I project to be at or near their best come Sunday (hopefully!) of this week!
(Editor's Note: Charles Howell III was omitted in the original submission)
Dustin Johnson: He has shown the penchant for playing tight courses with smallish-greens (Pebble Beach, TPC Southwind) and being successful. Johnson, who I believe will have a monster 2013, will be on this list frequently this year. He’s working on his short game and has the chops to handle any tracks on TOUR. If you’re afraid that his wildness off the tee might be a factor this week, remember that he was 26th on TOUR in GIR percentage from other than the fairway last year. He’s used to being off the short stuff and obviously it doesn’t bother him. With his length, he’s usually has a wedge or short iron in his hands which makes hitting GIR easier and he’s second in proximity to the hole from the rough. So there. In eight rounds at Waialae, Johnson has been par or better in the seven of them. He’s finished T10 (-6) in 2008 and T16 (-7) in 2010 so he’s been there, done that.
Keegan Bradley: Bradley is making his third consecutive trip to Honolulu to see if he can continue his improvement at Waialae. As a rookie in 2011, Bradley finished T68 an last year, he fired eight-under to finish T13. Bradley was No.1 in the all-around category in 2012 and has proven in his three wins that his game is also suited for any style of course on TOUR. All of those wins have also come on par-70 tracks (Firestone, Atlanta Athletic Club and TPC Four Seasons-Las Colinas).
Matt Kuchar: If it wasn’t for Kuchar’s last time playing here in 2011, he might not have been on the list this week. This will be his sixth Sony Open in seven years and his last visit, 2011, was the first time in five that he finished better than 65th (T5). He MC in the other three events. He’s only missed THREE cuts on TOUR in the last two years! Kuchar’s ball-striking and putting will make him a factor every week he tees it up as well in 2013!
Charles Howell III: In 40 career rounds at Waialae, CH III has played only six of them over par. Six. He also has six top 10 finishes in his 11 events as well so to say he's comfortable here would be a HUGE understatement. In his last four events here, he's finished fourth, T5, T68 and T2 last year. He finished 2012 with three events all inside the top 15 so he should be feeling pretty good about his game heading into 2013. He hasn't cracked into that elite group that we all thought he would 10 years ago but he's as steady as they come and cashed tons of checks. This week shouldn't be any different.
Zach Johnson: When you think of accuracy off the tee and strong putting, Zach Johnson is one of the first names that pop into my tiny brain inside my huge noggin. Johnson was 14th in fairways and sixth in strokes gained-putting last year and he’s proven that his game suits this course with a victory in 2009 and T12 in 2010. The last two seasons he’s finished T57 and T54 as weather has wreaked havoc on this event. His last two seasons have seen him make the cut in 43 of 48 events including 24 of 25 last year. DING!
Ryan Moore: He closed out 2012 with the birth of his first son so he’ll probably be excited to get away and get some sleep! His lack of length off the tee won’t be much of a concern this week because his ball-striking and putting should carry the load. He’s 21st in strokes gained-putting and makes tons of birdies. He hasn’t played here since 2006 so I’m relying on his current form to take over.
Webb Simpson: This will be Simpson’s fifth attempt to conquer Waialae in the last five seasons. Last year, he admitted after the tournament that he was out of gas from the 2011 regular season and was looking forward to some time off. In 2012, Simpson took time off in July and August as his wife gave birth to their second child. Simpson should be rested and ready to go as he looks to build on finishes of T9, T77, T46 and T38 last year. Sure, he can spray it a bit off the tee that doesn’t scare me off of him. He finished 34th in GIR last season 8th in 2011. Oh, and he makes tons of birdies as well which will come in handy around here!
Brendon de Jonge: If there’s a tournament scheduled this week or any week, de Jonge will be entered. His four seasons on TOUR have seen him play 29, 32, 30 and 31 starts. He’s made the cut in 89 of those starts including a career-best 27 (of 31) last year. He hit the top 25 11 times as well as he racked up the most money on TOUR without a victory last year. de Jonge missed the cut here in his first three starts but has finished T20 in 2011 and T10 last year. His second round 62 last year was his career-low round on TOUR. He was eighth on TOUR in GIR, first in birdies and was 24th in ball-striking last year so you know he’ll have plenty of chances this week.
Carl Pettersson: I hesitated to put Pettersson on here because this is an ODD year. After MC in his maiden voyage in 2004, Pettersson has made the cut in every EVEN year tournament since. In 2006 he was T10; T25 in 2008; T5 in 2010 and T2 last year. You wanna guess what happens in the ODD years? Go ahead. In three odd year tournaments, he’s broken 70 once. Statistical anomaly? Cursed like the Brady Bunch when they went to Hawaii? His final round, double-bogey on No. 2 set him in a hole but he dug out with six closing birdies to rebound last year. I’ll stick with him as that can’t hurt his confidence and he’s coming off a career year.
Tim Clark: In his three starts here, he’s been par or better in 11 of 12 rounds, including a pair of 64s. Now that Clark is healthy again, he will factor more consistently. We all had a glimpse of the “old” Tim Clark during the summer last year as he banged out six top 25s in nine events which included a T4 at the Travelers and a solo second at the Wyndham Championship. Clark’s three finishes here are T12 (2009), T25 (2010) and T2 (2011).
Johnson Wagner/Jimmy Walker: This year’s Johnson Wagner? Could be! He’s a very solid putter whose ball-striking is a bit loose. Walker has spent time this winter working with Butch Harmon so I’m encouraged to see how that works out. Walker has played here six times and made the cut in half of those appearances. 72-68 last year saw him MC but in 2011 he finished solo fourth with all four rounds in the 60s, including 65-66 Friday and Saturday. Wagner is your defending champion who MC the three previous years before winning. Makes sense!