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It's always nice to grab a victory early in the year and last week's selection Justin Thomas delivered a fantastic performance and a 22/1 winning return for this column. His balance of power, approach accuracy and short game was too much even for the in-form Hideki Matsuyama (another of my selections) who could never quite land a blow. Thomas, who's a close friend of World Number 5 Jordan Spieth, jumped to 12th in the Official World Golf Rankings after his victory and already looks a certainty to play in for the United States in the Presidents Cup. Thomas and Spieth, along with 21 other players who played in the SBS Tournament of Champions, catch a 50-minute flight to Honolulu for the Sony Open in Hawaii this week.
Before we talk Waialae, it's time to highlight our GBS Punters League. Now into its 7th season, the Punters League started last week and runs through to the week of the DP World Tour Championship in mid-November. Paddy Power are again sponsoring the competition with a £/€250 free bet first prize for the overall League Champion plus £/€25 free bets for each of the weekly winners. Entry is exclusively via our lively Facebook Group. Good luck and note that the deadline for this week is the first tee time in South Africa on Thursday.
For the 5th successive year we're also running our popular Majors Competition in association with bet365 who've put a total of £250 in free bets up for grabs to the winners. 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. A strong field which includes Spieth, Matsuyama, Thomas, Casey, Rose, Grace, Knox, Walker and Snedeker line-up at the Waialae Country Club for an event which has had full PGA Tour status since 1965. Shocks can happen here - Fabian Gomez won this 12 months ago at 100/1 - with Waialae offering up an 'old school' type test.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams preview the BMW SA Open - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
With the interest in Fantasy Golf growing, I've also written a dedicated preview for DraftKings for the Sony Open - click here to read it.
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 it out 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. 2016: 68.50 (-1.50), Difficulty Rank 45 of 50 courses.
Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for Waialae Country Club and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen on Tour:
Course Overview: The scoring at Waialae, as per Kapalua last week, is always shaped by the level of wind. Really light winds are forecast for this week and I'm expecting similar scoring levels to last year where Gomez and Snedeker shot -20/260 to make their play-off. It's worth noting that -16, -15 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. Accuracy though is definitely not a pre-requisite for victory here as Snedeker and Gomez only hit 29 and 28 of 56 fairways respectively 12 months ago.
Waialae Country Club is a pretty straightforward 7,044 yard Par 70 which, for the past 4 seasons, has ranked as the easiest (2013, 2016), or second easiest (2014, 2015) Par 70 on the PGA Tour. It's a flat design with generous enough fairways and fairly small green complexes which can yield plenty of birdies as long as you're consistently hitting greens. Waialae is one of the more difficult tests for driving accuracy (7th & 12th toughest in 2015/16) with fairways which traditionally run very fast seeing drives run through into light Bermuda rough. The view from players that getting close to the pin from the off fairway is hard 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, Jimmy Walker and Fabian Gomez 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 over the past 2 renewals has been the easiest course for par-5 Birdie or Better Conversion - indeed the 9th and 18th yielded a whopping 62 eagles in 2016. 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 15th most difficult from 10-15 feet 12 months ago. So look for players who are excellent Bermudagrass putters and who can convert birdie chances, rather than pure ball-strikers.
Winners: 2016: Fabian Gomez (-20); 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 Jordan Spieth (No.1), Jimmy Walker, Brandt Snedeker, Jason Dufner and Russell Knox.
DraftKings Predictor Model: For those of you who play DraftKings there's now a dedicated predictor model available here.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Tour Championship / Porsche Open / Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational and includes PGA Tour, European Tour and web.com Playoff 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: 2016: Gomez 100/1; 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.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Honolulu is here. The main pointer in 2017 looks to be wind conditions which tend to prove pivotal here. Expect extremely light wind conditions across Thursday to Saturday, which should make scoring far easier than we often see here. 10 mph trade wind kicks-up on Sunday, but all-in-all tournament conditions with blue sky and temperatures up to 29 degrees Celsius look perfect throughout.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 7 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 Waialae Country Club sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Kevin Kisner: "I have to keep it in the fairway, which is difficult with some of the winds and how fast the fairways were going, but today I was able to do that and hopefully keep doing it through the weekend. I love these greens. They were a little less grainy than last week and more like what I grew up on, so I feel very comfortable with them. I must have gotten better since the last few times I played here. I've always struggled at this course, coming over, being a little rusty from the East Coast and cold weather and trying to adjust. But this year I got to go to Maui and get kind of the rust off and the game feels good."
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 7 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
Course Designer Links: For research purposes other Raynor input designs include:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their group and winning score since 2010. Full First Round Leader stats are here.
Only Russell Henley (2013) has won here on course debut since 2006 and that highlights the quirky nature of the course and especially the fast, grainy TifDwarf Bermudagrass greens. They are extremely difficult to read so look for excellent putters who are comfortable on Bermuda. For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
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 18 Champions, 12 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, Wilson and Palmer have proved in recent years.
Course experience seems to be pay real dividends at Waialae as 10 of the past 11 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.
The key skill attributes at Waialae are Greens in Regulation and Strokes Gained Putting - it's that simple. 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 converts the most chances i.e. who putts the best on fairly grainy TifDwarf Bermudagrass greens. All 5 winners here since 2012 finished in the top 10 for Strokes Gained Putting on the week.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below. New customers can also get a free £10 no deposit required bet with Sky Bet - perfect for covering either Spieth or Matsuyama this week:
My selections are as follows:
Last year in this event we came up just short with Brandt Snedeker at 28/1 who missed out in a play-off with Fabian Gomez. The reasoning for picking him was quite simple: a West Coast Swing expert who was playing too well to ignore. Jimmy Walker performed admirably at Kapalua last week, but he simply kept burning edges with the putter across too many excellent opportunities. Straighter than we've seen for a while (19th in Driving Accuracy) with a shorter 42" driver, Team Walker decided over the winter to forego a little distance for more accuracy and it showed at Kapalua where Jimmy shot -8/65 to be the first round leader. The Texan eventually finished 9th driven by 6th in Greens in Regulation, 1st in Proximity to Hole and 7th in Putting Average performances. Strong all-round ball striking and putting and let's remember that Walker is 143 under par in Hawaii since 2011, so I think his price this week is more than attractive.
Walker's form here at Waialae is exemplary - 4th here in 2011, 1st 2014, 1st 2015, 13th 2016 - with Jimmy also winning in California across 2013 (CordeValle) and 2014 (Pebble Beach). He clearly thrives on the West Coast Swing and as a result has a great coastal record, plus it's interesting to read his non-Major winning prices - 40/1, 40/1, 28/1, 18/1 and 25/1 - when he's playing well he tends to convert. Asked last year about his key to success at Waialae, Walker responded, "I really drove it well the last two years that I've played here. I've been in the fairways. I've been hitting more fairways than I normally hit. And I've really putted well. I felt like last year I really got into a good groove of putting and really seeing the greens and the grain and the breaks and just making a lot of putts." If last week's ball-striking on Maui continues this week in Honolulu, I can only see Jimmy contending again here.
I mentioned last week in my new DraftKings Preview that Russell Knox struggles on long golf courses. So with this week in mind I was excited to see the Jacksonville Beach, Florida resident sitting 9th after 54 holes on Saturday. Sure enough a 73 on Sunday saw him slip to 17th place - not too shabby on his Kapalua debut - but all-in-all the World Number 19 is playing some beautiful golf right now. A form line that reads 17(Kapalua)-9(Shark Shootout)-3(Mayakoba)-9(Sheshan)-10(Kuala Lumpur) highlights a level of consistency which few achieve on the PGA Tour and I think Waialae will play to his strengths this week. You see Russell has always been known for his accuracy and top-notch ball-striking - indeed he currently sits 4th in our Greens in Regulation 10-week tracker - rather than for his putting. But of late Russell has also been putting extraordinarily well as he sits 5th in our Putting Average 10-week tracker, 28th in Strokes Gained Putting and 4th in Putting from 5 - 10' for PGA Tour season 2016/17. So the Par 70 at Waialae, which is 7,044 yards in length, should really play to the Scotsman's strengths this week.
Wins at Sheshan in (November 2015) and TPC River Highlands (August 2016) have boosted the Scot's confidence no-end, with both courses measuring only 7,143 yards and 6,841 yards in length respectively. Other top 10s at PGA National (2nd 2015 & 3rd 2015), Harbour Town (2nd 2016), TPC Southwind (8th 2015), TPC Summerlin (3rd 2014) and El Camaleon (2nd 2015 & 3rd 2016) have all come on short Par 70/71 formats. So the pattern has been set and amidst 4 Missed Cuts here - remember this is the yearly opener for many players - Knox finished 13th here in 2015. That was only 2 shots back from an each way place finish after opening rounds of 66-65 had him 6th after 36 holes. With Kapalua now behind him and a schedule that saw him play competitively into mid-December, I can see Russell challenging for his 3rd PGA Tour title in 14 months this week.
Billy Horschel is always one to follow when he hits form. We learnt that back in 2013 when he won his first PGA Tour event on the Bermudagrass greens of TPC Louisiana (-20/268) and again in 2014 when his putter sparked into life at TPC Boston. He came up short that day, bogeying the par-5 18th and losing by a couple of shots to Chris Kirk, but he went on to scorch the field at both Cherry Hills and East Lake, capturing back-to-back titles including the coveted Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup and $10 million into the bargain. Winning such a huge prize doesn't always signify that a player has 'arrived' and since then results have been scarce to say the least. But his last 8 competitive outings have seen 5th at Sedgefield (Bermudagrass greened Par 70), 13th at Bethpage Black, 10th at Crooked Stick, 2nd at Sea Island (TifDwarf Bermudagrass greens) and 3rd with Charley Hoffman in the Franklin Templeton Shootout, so Billy was playing competitive golf as late as mid-December.
So what had changed since August? Well Horschel is a renowned high quality ball-striker who really comes to the party when his putter fires. He switched to the PXG Gunboat putter at TPC Summerlin in November and has undoubtedly been making his fair share of putts since. 9th in Strokes Gained Putting and 8th in Putting from 5 - 10' season to date are the kind of statistics you want a player to have arriving at Waialae and Horschel also sits in the top 20 across both Bogey Avoidance and Greens in Regulation. 6th at Kapalua - form that transfers nicely to Waialae - in 2014 highlights that Billy can play well on his first appearance of the year and he's played here twice in the past shooting an opening round -4/66 (good enough for 7th) in his last appearance here in 2013.
Chris Kirk let me down badly at Sea Island when he went off as the 18/1 favourite. Hindsight is a wonderful thing in golf betting and the fact that Chris had played 5 out of the last 6 weeks and was undoubtedly placing himself under pressure on a course where he'd won previously all became too much. Saying all of that, he missed the cut by a single shot, made only 3 Bogeys and finished 5th for Greens in Regulation across the full field. Hardly the stuff of disaster. So Chris starts 2017 refreshed, entering a tournament where he's finished 5th in 2013 and 2nd in 2014. At 73rd in the OWGR and having closely missed out on a Tour Championship starting berth, the former Georgia Bulldog will be desperate to establish himself back in the top 50 in the world as soon as possible to guarantee Major Championship and World Golf Championship invites.
2 of Kirk's 4 PGA Tour wins have been on Bermudagrass greens and his form on Tifdwarf Bermudagrass is also worthy of note. His pair of top 5 finishes here, with 7th (2011) at PGA West (TifDwarf Bermuda Poa Trivialis) plus 1st and 4th (2013 & 2014) at Sea Island, have all come specifically on TifDwarf variety putting surfaces. He currently sits 21st and 16th in our Greens in Regulation and Putting Average 10-week trackers and with 3 top-10 finishes already this season he's ripe to keep the momentum going. Kirk also loves the course stating in 2014, "I think it's a good right-to-left players' course. I think here and Colonial are kind of two of my favourites of the year. You kind of have to play the ball on the ground a little bit, get firm and fast greens and small greens, so you've got to have a good short game, too. I think all those kind of things together plays into my hands a little bit."
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