The Sony Open is set to kick off the second leg of the Hawaiian double dip at Waialae Country Club, and Jimmy Walker returns to try and successfully defend his 2014 and 2015 titles.
Waialae Country Club is a par 70 of only 7,044 yards. As the par value would suggest, it features two par 5s, four par 3s and 12 par 4s. The par 5s are easily reachable by two for the vast majority of the field, especially if the fairways are found. Two of the par 4s are under 400 yards, while four are 460 yards or longer.
The greens are Bermuda grass, so those that traditionally play well on the Florida Swing and in events across the deep South tend to feel comfortable on these surfaces.
The last 10 editions were won by David Toms (2006), Paul Goydos (2007), K.J. Choi (2008), Zach Johnson (2009), Ryan Palmer (2010), Mark Wilson (2011), Johnson Wagner (2012), Russell Henley (2013) and Jimmy Walker (2014, 2015).
The above list is populated by classy players, meaning this golf course often identifies pedigree or is a good indicator of future success. In general, this tournament has been very kind to veterans. Henley in 2013 is the only real exception, as he was making the first start of his rookie season when he won.
The Stats Say
In addition to driving accuracy and GIR from other than the fairway, par 4 scoring average and par 4 birdie or better % is worth a look. Scoring goes fairly low in this event, and two par 5s mean that a good chunk of the birdies have to come on the other 16 holes. A peek at par breakers wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
The layout has the reputation of being very tight off the tee, but finding the fairways isn’t always required to be successful. For those who place emphasis on stats, as we all should, a player either needs to be very efficient at finding fairways or he must rank high in GIR from other than the fairway. Jimmy Walker and Charles Howell III are great examples of guys with awesome records at Waialae by virtue of GIR from other than the fairway, while Tim Clark and Jerry Kelly have made their money from the fairways.
One research trick is to find tournaments that share the same names on the first page of their leaderboards over the years. In doing so, one will notice that Sony Open success also translates to success at the RBC Heritage and the OHL Classic at Mayakoba. None of those tournaments are very long off the tee, they put a premium on finding tight fairways, and they are also located very close to the ocean. If course history is light for a player in this event, it’s not a bad idea to look for success in those events.
With this being the first full-field tournament of 2016, and every season in our relevant and recent research history, certain things hold true. For starters, some guys have a knack for starting strong and feeling at home on this course. While we typically like to blend course history, current form and stats somewhat equally, this is an example of a time where course history should be the leader and current form is probably of lesser importance. Charles Howell III has long been a popular one-and-done play for this reason.
The other thing that stands out is that success or failure in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions really hasn’t proven relevant at all in terms of the Sony Open. Jimmy Walker won the Sony Open in 2015 after a playoff loss, but there are plenty of examples were guys were in the bottom third of the field at Kapalua, only to win at Waialae. Kapalua and Waialae are so different in terms of length, terrain and potentially wind that success at one means nothing at the other. Regardless of finish, it does help to have played the HTOC last week to knock off the rust.
On Everyone’s Radar
Jimmy Walker: He did not end the 2015 calendar year in the strongest of form, but a third-round 64 at Kapalua reminded gamers that he always shows up in the early part of the calendar year. He should be primed and ready for a strong title defense this week
Matt Kuchar: When a player’s worst finish in his last four trips to a tournament is a T8, you will garner respect and attention. That’s the case for Kuchar this week. He did not have a particularly great 2015 by his standards, but he deserves a hard look in most formats this week.
Charles Howell III: Up until about a year ago, he was the obvious choice in every lineup at the Sony Open. While he’s faded off a bit, Chucky Three Sticks is 14/14 with seven top-five finishes in this event. He looked like his old self in the early days of the 2015-16 season with a pair of top 10s, so play him with confidence this week.
Harris English: It would be nice if his statistical cocktail lined up a little cleaner for the Sony Open, but he’s unlocked the mystery of Waialae CC anyway. Improving from T67 to T9-4-T3 in his four starts tells the real story. Two top 25s to start the early portion of the new years is an extra layer of comfort.
Zach Johnson: The past champion made eight of his 10 cuts with three, top-12 finishes in this event. If he is on point, this course fits right into his wheelhouse. Not particularly strong at Kapalua last week, but that’s of little concern. It bears mentioning that he’s not been a big fan of Bermuda courses in the past, despite his win here.
Will Wilcox: A darling of most die hard fantasy players, Wilcox was T8 in 2014 at the Sony Open, had a couple of top 20s in the early portion of this current season and offers the best statistical numbers for this course of any player in the field. Perhaps he is the non-winner with the best chance to break through this week
Kevin Kisner: Hard to find a hotter player not named Jordan Spieth or Patrick Reed than Kisner, but something has to give this week. Kisner has made just one of four cuts at Waialae CC, and that was a MDF last year. Stats look good, so we’ll see if excellent form trumps bad history.
Graeme McDowell: Earlier in the article, the comparison to Waialae CC was made of the courses associated with the OHL Classic at Mayakoba and the RBC Heritage. Two of GMac’s three career PGA TOUR wins came in those two events. He’s never played the Sony Open, but this seems like a match made in heaven.
Russell Henley: Won here in his first attempt and managed a T17 last season after a T57 in his title defense. Kept his schedule fairly light to end 2015, but when he played it resulted in two top 10s in three starts to begin the new season. Known as a strong par 4 player, so this is a green light.
Ryan Palmer: Champion in 2010 and posted a T8 and a T17 in his last two trips to Waialae CC. Played a light schedule late in 2015, perhaps due in part to some time off following the unexpected death of his father, but managed a T16 in Vegas in his last TOUR start.
Veterans to Watch
Pat Perez: Two top 10s preceded his T17 in last year’s Sony Open, so he’s trending towards being a course horse at Waialae CC.
Kevin Na: In his 10 Sony Opens, he has two top fives and another top 10. Exited the 2015 portion of the season ranked sixth in the FedExCup standings.
Marc Leishman: Hasn’t missed a cut in six tries and has a tidy two top 10s and four top 20s.
Rory Sabbatini: This marks his 18th appearance in this event, and he was twice a runner-up along with a tie for sixth last year.
Jerry Kelly: One of the straightest drivers the PGA TOUR has ever seen, he’s made Waialae CC his playground over the years. With a win as the highlight, he has 11 top 25s, eight top 10s and three top threes. Great option in a two-man one-and-done league.
Adam Scott: Cashed checks in four of six trips, with two top 10s and four top 20s. The putter will be the question, as it always will be now that the anchor has sunk.
Young and Successful
Shawn Stefani: Tied for sixth here last year and his stats should line up well here despite this being just his third trip to Waialae CC.
Russell Knox: After three missed cuts in his first three Sony Opens, Knox tied for 13th last year. Expect more of the latter.
Emiliano Grillo: Maiden voyage to the Sony Open, but expect him to be ready to roll.
Hudson Swafford: He’s been feast-or-famine in his two starts, erasing a T8 in 2014 with a MC last year.
Daniel Berger: Tied for 13th last year with four rounds in the 60s. He’s going to win soon, and the Floridian should feel right at home on the Bermuda grass.
Zac Blair: A T6 last year in the Sony Open looks especially tasty following a T10 at Mayakoba in the fall. Connect those dots!
We Need to Discuss
Tim Clark: Twice a runner-up and usually on the short list here for most gamers, we now get to see how ugly it will be with a regulation putter in tow.
Webb Simpson: He ditched the long wand earlier than most, but he’s been terrible since doing so. His previously strong history is out the window until he can figure out how to putt.
Brian Gay: First start back since the 2014 Wyndham Championship and a thumb surgery. Be patient.
Check out which of these players make the cut in Playing the Tips!
Best of luck to all!