So Jordan Spieth started 2016 in style by dominating the Hyundai Tournament of Champions pretty much from start to finish. The Kapalua victory was Spieth's 7th, which equals Tiger Woods for the most PGA Tour wins before the age of 23, plus it was the first Kapalua victory by a reigning Major Champion since Ernie Els in 2003. You get the feeling that the young Texan, who seems so mentally mature, will be rewriting the record books for a long time to come. My selection Patrick Reed also played some outstanding golf and delivered a full each-way return by finishing 2nd.
Before we move onto Waialae and the Sony Open, for the 4th successive year we're running our popular Majors Competition in association with bet365 with an increased £250 free bet prize fund up for grabs. The competition is in the form of a one-and-done, so all you need to do is give us a single player for each of the 4 Majors to enter - full details are here.
We move forward to the Sony Open in Hawaii which is the traditional first full-field tournament of the calendar year on the PGA Tour. The Sony this season has a strong line up with Jimmy Walker having the rare opportunity to go for 3 wins in a row. The Sony has thrown up plenty of surprise results in recent times - indeed the average winning price over the last 6 renewals is just over 100/1. However the tournament last year featured a leaderboard topped by the imperious Walker (18/1), followed (not chased!) by Matt Kuchar (20/1) Scott Piercy (100/1) and Harris English (40/1).
Over on the European Tour Paul Williams previews the Joburg Open - you can read his preview and selections for that event here.
Course Guide: Waialae Country Club has changed in recent years from a tight, technical track by the coast to a course where low scoring is more than achievable. The 1927 Seth Raynor-designed property used to be the domain of the short, accurate hitter, but in recent renewals longer hitters such as Ryan Palmer (2010) and Jimmy Walker (2014, 2015) have won in Honolulu, where accurate driving helps but is seemingly not as critical to the final result as players make out it to be. This is a real Jekyll and Hyde course where the winning score has varied from -13/267 to a resort-level -24/256 dependant upon rough length (short 2" is the norm), speed of the course and, naturally in Hawaii, the strength of the winds which are prevailing easterly trade winds here.
Waialae Country Club, Honolulu, Hawaii: Designer: Raynor, 1927; Course Type: Coastal, Resort; Par: 70; Length: 7,044 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 4; Fairways Bermudagrass; Rough: Bermudagrass, 2"; Greens: 6,500 sq.ft TifDwarf Bermudagrass; Stimpmeter: 11ft. Course Scoring Average 2012: 69.77 (-0.23), Difficulty Rank 28 of 49 courses. 2013: 68.90 (-1.10), Difficulty Rank 33 of 43 courses. 2014: 69.30 (-0.70), Rank 36 of 48 courses. Course Scoring Average 2015: 69.01 (-0.99), Difficulty Rank 37 of 52 courses.
Course Overview: The scoring at Waialae, as per Kapalua last week, is always shaped by the level of wind. Light winds are again forecast for this week, but with firm conditions in play don't expect a Kapalua-style scoring frenzy. Instead I'm expecting similar scoring levels to last year where Jimmy Walker triumphed with a -23/257 total, but it's worth noting that -16 and -13 have been good enough for full each-way payouts since 2013.
The Par 70 at Waialae features a couple of Par 5s, both of which are reachable. Accuracy from the tee is an advantage as hitting fairways here is one of the hardest tasks on the whole Tour. Driving accuracy has been negated a little in recent years though as lower rough height has played into the hands of the longer hitters, but despite Jimmy Walker averaging over 300 yards from the tee last year he still ranked in the Top 22 for fairways split.
Waialae Country Club is a pretty straightforward 7,044 yard Par 70 which, for the past 3 seasons, has ranked as the easiest (2013), or second easiest (2014 + 2015) Par 70 on the PGA Tour. It's a flat design with tight fairways and fairly small green complexes which can yield plenty of birdies as long as you're consistently hitting greens. Some of the tightest fairway landing areas on Tour traditionally makes Waialae one of the more difficult tests for driving accuracy (7th toughest in 2015) and the view from players that getting close to the pin from the off fairway is backed up by the fact that Waialae is traditionally in the Top 20 most difficult courses in terms of Rough Proximity. However as Ryan Palmer, Johnson Wagner and Jimmy Walker have all proven, hitting masses of fairways is not a pre-requisite to winning the tournament as long as you can hit greens when missing the short stuff.
Instead the key to success is fairly simple. Waialae was the easiest course last term for Par 5 Birdie or Better Conversion - indeed it yielded a whopping 45 eagles in 2015. Allied to this, every winner here since 2010 has finished in the top 10 for Greens in Regulation and that task naturally becomes trickier if the trade winds pick up. The course doesn't need much wind to become a far stiffer test. Finally a player needs to be a confident Bermudagrass putter: green complexes are pretty flat, but many a player finds the TifDwarf Bermudagrass difficult to putt on. Indeed Waialae's greens were the 12th most difficult from within both 10 feet and from 10-15 feet 12 months ago. So look for players who are excellent putters and who can convert birdie chances, rather than pure ball-strikers.
Winners: 2015: Jimmy Walker (-23); 2014: Jimmy Walker (-17); 2013: Russell Henley (-24); 2012: Johnson Wagner (-13); 2011: Mark Wilson (-16); 2010: Ryan Palmer (-15).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published Sony Open predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Zach Johnson (Predictor Number 1), Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas, Matt Kuchar and Harris English.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to the British Masters and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2015: Walker 18/1; 2014: Walker 40/1; 2013: Henley 100/1; 2012: Wagner 125/1; 2011: Wilson 80/1; 2010: Palmer 250/1; Average: 102/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Honolulu is here. Weather conditions throughout the tournament look fantastic with minimal threat of rain and light breeze across 3 of the 4 days. Indeed precipitation has been in short supply since a wet (for Hawaii) November, so expect typically firm conditions with little Bermudagrass rough. 10-15 mph trade winds do create a problem around Waialae and with these conditions forecast on Friday we should see a slight slowdown in scoring. As ever around Waialae, fast starters are preferable.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors:
Analysing the final stats of the 6 winners here since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to how the course sets up and what skill sets it favours:
Jimmy Walker: "Obviously I know this is one of the harder weeks on Tour to hit fairways, I think, is what this statistically comes down to. I always joke with my buddies that that plays into my hands because I don't hit any fairways anyway. But it is nice to be in the fairway here. I remember I did drive it well here last year. I drove it really well, and that helps you set up to attack some of these greens and attack the pins. The greens are small. I mean, they're tiny compared to last week. Fairways are tiny. It's a much smaller course, but it does still play long. We were hitting a lot longer mid irons today with no wind, and it's just a fraction soft. But you've still got to hit really good second shots. Driving it good here is nice because the rough is up and greens are small and you don't want to be catching fliers into these greens and then you've got tough chip shots. I think it's kind of get it in the fairway, get it on the green and get some putts to go in. It seems like you always go about 4‑under a day out here or 5‑under, that usually gets you right where you want to be."
Zach Johnson: "Compare Waialae to Kapalua? Completely different. You're talking about the hardest walk in golf at Maui to potentially and arguably the easiest golf on the PGA TOUR here at Waialae. Vastly different, but also challenging, too, because you're going for some of the biggest fairways and some of the smallest fairways, and you're going for some of the biggest greens and some of the smallest greens. Everything you would want in a golf course where you've got to pick it apart and plot your way around I think this golf lends itself to. If there's any wind here, it's hard, and it usually is blowing. This is hit the ball in the fairway, however you do it, get the ball in the fairway and then stay below the pin, keep the golf course in front of you and make those four and five‑footers. A great test."
Johnson Wagner: "It's so hard to hit the fairways out here. The crosswinds are strong, and I play pretty much a draw, so when the winds get hard right to left it's hard for me to hold a lot of the fairways, so then you're coming into small, firm greens out of jumpy Bermuda rough. I think driving is probably the most difficult thing at Waialae. And if you don't drive it well, you're going to have trouble coming into these greens."
Matt Kuchar: "I told people that coming from Kapalua, these greens are much friendlier to putt. I feel like I have really good chances to see the ball go in. I love Kapalua, but the amount of slope and the amount of grain in the greens is challenging. It's challenging to make putts there. Here these greens are much flatter with much less grain and much less slope, and it seems like it's a much easier place to make putts now. The biggest difference is you can make putts more easily here, but hitting fairways is a much tougher task here than it is over at Kapalua. Here hitting fairways is so critical and today I did a very good job of that. There are a number of holes that can be extremely tough, that are tough holes, particularly finding the fairway, and if you don't find the fairway, you're struggling for pars. I found a lot of fairways today and was able to take a little more advantage. A hole can be taken advantage of when you're in the fairway."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 6 winners:
There's no doubt that players who've played at Kapalua the week before the Sony Open have historically had an advantage. Of the past 17 Champions, 11 had played on Maui the week before triumphing here. My advice though is don't get caught in the 'must play Kapalua' camp - it helps but certainly isn't critical as Henley, Wagner, Wilson and Palmer have proved in recent years.
Course experience seems to be pay real dividends at Waialae as 9 of the past 10 champions had played the Sony Open multiple times prior to lifting the trophy. The only exception to this rule was Russell Henley in 2013 when he beat the rest of the field by a huge margin in his first PGA Tour start in his rookie season, having arrived in Honolulu fresh from 2 late season wins on the web.com Tour.
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008.
The key skill attributes at Waialae are Greens in Regulation and Putting Average. Since 2010 every winner here has featured in the Top 10 of GIR%. However with small, flat greens this tournament eventually comes down to who putts the best on fairly grainy TifDwarf Bermudagrass greens - all 6 winners here since 2010 finished in the Top 10 for Putting Average on the week.
Key Bookmaker Offers:
My selections are as follows:
When it comes to success in the West Coast swing, Brandt Snedeker has only one peer in this field and that's 2-time Sony Open winner Jimmy Walker. So I'm casting aside 2 Missed Cuts here way back in 2007 and 2008; instead I'm focussing on the obvious fact that Sneds is playing fantastic golf right now. A much needed early December visit to Las Vegas to see Butch Harmon has already paid huge dividends as since that 'straightening exercise' Snedeker has won the Franklin Templeton Shootout (on Bermudagrass greens at Tiburon Golf Club) with Jason Dufner and last week finished a creditable 3rd behind Jordan Spieth at Kapalua. Kapalua form transfers to Waialae nicely so there's absolutely no reason why Brandt, who loves stringing results together, can't go close this week at Waialae, especially as he only made 3 Bogeys last week on Maui and topped Greens in Regulation - always the green light in my mind for such a clinical putter.
Snedeker's coastal form across Kapalua (3rd 2013/16), Torrey Pines (1st 2012, 2nd 2010/13), Pebble Beach (1st 2013/15), Harbour Town (1st 2011) and Royal Lytham (3rd 2012) is exemplary. Additional west coast form across PGA West (10th 2010, 8th 2012), TPC Scottsdale (2nd 2013) and Riviera (4th 2015) adds more credence to his chance this week, as does the fact that his winning prices since 2011 read 35/1, 22/1, 40/1, 14/1, 14/1 and 25/1. When he's playing well he tends to convert. RESULT: 2nd, Lost Play-off
We've been on board Russell Henley on his last 2 appearances at TPC Summerlin (66/1) and Sea Island (33/1). No return from those bets is harsh, however it would be wrong not to back him again this week after 10th in Nevada and 6th in Georgia highlight that the South Carolina resident closed 2015 in cracking form. The 3-time web.com winner, the latter of which was on Bermudagrass greens on the Dye Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass in 2012, always showed bags of potential, however it was January 2013 that saw Henley announce his promotion to the main Tour by claiming the title here at Waialae in his first PGA Tour event in his rookie season with an imperious display to beat a strong field. His price that day was 100/1. He went on to capture his 2nd PGA Tour title 13 months later at PGA National where he beat Rory McIlroy and Ryan Palmer (2010 Sony Open champion) in a play-off.
Henley and Snedeker are both fantastic putters who are very similar in style. Russell undoubtedly became a more all-round player throughout the 2015 campaign and at 66th in the OWGR he'll have an immediate goal to win his 3rd PGA Tour title as quickly as possible to grab a place at Augusta plus the other 2016 Majors and WGCs. Henley's compatibility with TifDwarf Bermudagrass greens is also strengthened by the fact that on top of his victory here 36 months ago he's finished 4th (2014) and 6th (2015) at Sea Island. RESULT: MC
22 year-old Floridian Daniel Berger is an outstanding prospect who has already been backed in from 50/1 with Paddy Power this afternoon. Controversially awarded the 2015 Rookie of the Year award by his golfing peers - over and above well-fancied Justin Thomas - Berger is part of the Class of 2011 who've made considerable waves of late. Berger surfaced on the main Tour 12 months ago when he finished 13th on course debut here (he was only 2 shots off of 3rd place) and went on to finish 10th at both TPC Scottsdale and Pebble Beach on the West Coast Swing before returning to Florida to almost snatch the Honda Classic at an incredibly technical and windy PGA National. He was only beaten in a play-off by the wily Padraig Harrington.
After his near miss on the Champions Course, Daniel went on to finish 13th at Bay Hill and 6th at New Orleans before truly showing his mettle in the FedEx PlayOffs by finishing 12th at TPC Boston followed by a magnificent 2nd to Jason Day at Conway Farms. That qualified him for a spot at East Lake (the only rookie in 2015 to do so) and placed him on the radar of both bookmakers and punters alike. So 12 months on from his first flirtation with main Tour contention in Honolulu, I really like the look of Berger this week whose top class ball-striking and love for Bermudagrass greens is undoubted. 11th at Sheshan in his first WGC start continued to impress last November as did 3rd at the Franklin Templeton Shootout last time out in December. If his putting continues in the same vein as it ended 2015 he should be in contention this week. RESULT: T42
A rested Johnson Wagner could push on to challenge this week at a course which he has a real love/hate relationship with. The 2013 champion here has also Missed the Cut 6 times from 8 appearances! However the Texan has started this season strongly with 15th at GC of Jackson, 8th at El Camaleon and 25th at Sea Island (where he was 4th after Round 1). The 3-time PGA Tour winner likes to shoot low scores - wins at the GC of Houston (2008), and El Camaleon (2011) came at -18/270 and -17/267 - plus his Bogey Avoidance, Greens in Regulation and Strokes Gained Putting stats across both this/last season make for excellent reading. Johnson has always favoured Bermudagrass greens and that makes him a longer price danger this week.
Wagner's CV contains 9th (2012) and 10th (2009) at Kapalua, 2nd at PGA West (2012), 4th at Bay Hill (2012), 8th at Annandale (2010) and 3rd at Disney (2010). 2nd at Old White TPC (2013) also links well to both Jimmy Walker and Russell Henley. Wagner's best results have always arrived in rare periods when his putter really fires, so his 7th in Strokes Gained Putting last time out at Sea Island is the green light for me this week to back him at triple-digits. RESULT: MC
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