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Let’s be frank – World Number 1 Dustin Johnson dominated at Kapalua last week to deliver his 17th PGA Tour victory. A win by 8 shots across 4 days of testing coastal conditions shows exactly what Johnson is all about. We learnt more about Jon Rahm as well – the new World Number 3 highlighting again just what a special talent we are witnessing in its very early stages. A 12/1 each way return for this column was delivered by the Spaniard who again got to grips with a very specialised test amazingly quickly. Food for thought for the likes of Thomas and Spieth, along with 17 other players who played in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and catch a 50-minute flight to Honolulu for the Sony Open in Hawaii this week.
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 enough field which includes Spieth, Thomas, Leishman, Harman, Kisner and Si-Woo Kim line up at the Waialae Country Club for an event which has had full PGA Tour status since 1965 with Waialae offering up an ‘old school’ type test. An obvious winner along with shocks can happen at the Sony Open as the last 2 renewals highlight perfectly: Justin Thomas going back-to-back at 14/1 last year whilst Fabian Gomez won this 24 months ago at 100/1.
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), Jimmy Walker (2014, 2015) and Justin Thomas (2017) 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 -27/253 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. Recent renewals though have seen Waialae yield plenty of birdies for those who hit plenty of greens.
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. 2017: 68.31 (-1.69), Difficulty Rank 43 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 Designer Links: For research purposes other Raynor input designs include:
Course Overview: The scoring at Waialae, as per Kapalua last week, is always shaped by the level of wind. Unlike Kapalua though, light winds are forecast for this week making this another scoreable test – although I don’t think we are likely to see the scoring feat of Justin Thomas 12 months ago when he shot -27/253. Expect though something around the -20/260 mark being needed for victory.
Waialae Country Club is a pretty straightforward 7,044 yard Par 70 which, for the past 5 seasons, has ranked as the easiest (2013, 2016, 2017), 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. 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.
Waialae is one of the more difficult tests for driving accuracy (7th, 12th and 14th toughest in 2015/16/17) 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 off the fairway is backed up by the fact that Waialae is traditionally in the top 20 most difficult courses in terms of Rough Proximity. However the need for driving accuracy has been significantly negated in recent years as lower rough height has played into the hands of the longer hitters. Accuracy no longer appears to be a pre-requisite for victory here as 2016 playoff protagonists Snedeker and Gomez only hit 29 and 28 of 56 fairways respectively, with Justin Thomas only splitting 25 (44.6%) last year. Hitting masses of fairways therefore is not a pre-requisite to winning the tournament as long as you can consistently hit greens when missing the short stuff.
Instead the key to success is fairly simple. Waialae over the past 3 renewals has been the easiest course for par-5 Birdie or Better Conversion – indeed the 9th and 18th holes yielded a whopping 62 and 56 eagles across 2016 and 2017 renewals. Allied to this, every winner here since 2010 has finished in the top 12 for Greens in Regulation and that task naturally becomes trickier when the trade winds pick up. The course doesn’t need much wind to become a 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 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: 2017: Justin Thomas (-27); 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).
Published Predictor Model: Our published predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of my published predictor are Jordan Spieth, Brian Stuard, Patton Kizzire, Cameron Smith and Brian Harman.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Alfred Dunhill Links / Safeway Open and includes PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2017: Justin Thomas 14/1; 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: 91/1. Past 4 Renewals Average: 43/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Honolulu is here. A wet December (84mm) may take a little fire out of a course which is well known for playing firm and fast on the fairways. Greens here of late though have always been receptive enough and I don’t see that changing unless the Course Superintendent has different ideas. Breeze will be light throughout, so expect a genuine birdie-fest.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the last 8 winners here since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Average:
So let’s take a view from players as to how Waialae Country Club sets up and what skills the course favours:
Justin Thomas: “Yeah, that same round, I was driving it well. And I know this course, if you drive it well, you can play it really well. It’s the hardest fairways to hit on Tour I think, and the greens aren’t big, and the rough is kind of that length to where you can get some flyers or it can come out dead. The biggest thing is just getting it in play, because I can just hit a lot of 2-irons out here and then I’m having short irons in, and I felt comfortable enough with those that I could hit my numbers. It wasn’t windy. Going back to that round, I remember, like I said, hitting it well and just kind of, it was an easy 61. Not that, you know, today wasn’t easy by any means, but it’s just low stress. It’s fairway, green under the hole, make the putt, not very much break, sort of thing. That’s just kind of what I did today. Yeah, it’s obviously two total and completely different golf courses. A lot more drivers last week. Just kind of whaling away more so. The fairways are huge this week. It’s a lot of position, and getting in the fairways, but I am kind of starting to hit a decent amount of drivers. Just to use my length to my advantage, and I feel comfortable with some of the drives.“
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 8 Sony Open winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
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 19 Champions, 13 (68%) 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 totally critical as Henley, Wilson and Palmer have proven in recent years. I must say though that since the introduction of the wrap-around season, Waialae winners namely Walker (x2), Gomez and Thomas have all played the Tournament of Champions.
Course experience seems to be pay real dividends at Waialae as 11 of the past 12 champions had played the Sony Open multiple times prior to lifting the trophy. The only exception to this rule was 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 12 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 6 winners here since 2012 finished in the top 10 for Strokes Gained Putting on the week.
My selections are as follows:
Marc Leishman 2pts EW 16/1 with Coral
“Well, confidence is pretty high, game’s in a good spot. There’s no reason why I can’t go over there and put four good rounds together. I played well there in the past. Never really contended to win it, but I’ve had a lot of top-10s there, I don’t know how many, or top-15s. So, yeah, looking forward to that.” With rounds of -6/67, -4/69 and -6/67 last week it’s clear that Marc Leishman is continuing to play some outstanding stuff at the highest level right now. 6th at Royal Birkdale, 13th at Quail Hollow, 3rd at TPC Boston, 1st at Conway Farms, 2nd in a Playoff at Nine Bridges, 5th at Royal Pines and 7th at Kapalua highlights a level of consistency that has pushed the Victorian to be the Number 1 Australian right now. 2 wins on the PGA Tour across 2017 was a career best haul and Waialae undoubtedly presents a huge opportunity again this week. Marc has played here across 8 of the past 9 renewals finishing 12th here on debut (2009), 20th (2010), 9th (2013), 5th (2014) and 20th (2017). Added to that, he undoubtedly has a level of comfort here on the Waialae greens placing 13th and 2nd for Strokes Gained Putting here across 2013 and 2014.
So in a world where there are question marks about the 2 single-digit market leaders, the relaxed theme of the Sony Open could well play into Marc’s hands in his quest to post 4 strong rounds this week. 8th for Greens in Regulation, 2nd for Strokes Gained Approach the Green, 6th for Proximity to Hole and 8th in Strokes Gained Tee to Green show an approach game which is in rude health and Leishman is a proven Bermudagrass green winner who shot -23/261 to win the BMW Championship last August.
Brian Harman 2pts EW 20/1 with Coral
Brian Harman is undoubtedly the form man of the new PGA Tour season and I love his chances here at Waialae this week following on from a stellar third place at Kapalua where he was only beaten by Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm. The upwardly mobile World Number 23 arrives in Honolulu with impressive form which reads 3(ToC)-3(QBE ShootOut)-4(RSM Classic)-8(HSBC Champions)-5(CJ Cup) – all that is missing is his 3rd PGA Tour victory. That could easily come at Waialae, where Harman has shot 15 of his last 16 rounds under par, including a 64, 65 and a pair of 66s. Brian featured in the final group here in 2015 – 3 shots back from eventual winner Jimmy Walker – and commented after a Saturday -6/64 “There’s a lot of local knowledge that goes into this place, so just knowing the course a little bit better is key. I had a really nice round. I finished last week, I had some confidence coming in. Usually I’m coming into this tournament pretty cold, so that was nice to finish well last year and beat some of the rust off.“
1st for Greens in Regulation, 3rd for Strokes Gained Approach the Green and 6th for Strokes Gained Tee to Green at Kapalua carried on Brian’s ball-striking prowess from the autumn. Tie that in with the fact that Harman has found the greens here to his liking on recent visits placing 3rd for Strokes Gained Putting last year and within the top 10 in 2016 and you can see that he has a real chance this week to deliver a much merited win. It’s worth remembering that the St Simons Island resident won his maiden title with a -22/262 total at the 2014 John Deere Classic so low scoring is no chore and on a track where Greens in Regulation and Bogey Avoidance is critical, he currently sits 4th and 10th across both PGA Tour skill sets. 10th (2014) and 4th (2017) at Sea Island and 3rd at PGA West (2017) also marry-up perfectly from a comfortable on TifDwarf Bermudagrass greens perspective.
Cameron Smith 1pt EW 40/1 with Betfair
Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Cameron Smith and golf betting is often a game of patience. Scrolling down to the bottom of the Sentry leaderboard early last Friday morning and seeing young Mr Smith ensconced in tied 30th spot alongside Jordan Spieth was not something I anticipated. But Kapalua will always take first time visitors to the cleaners and Cameron was the latest victim shooting a couple of bogeys and a triple in the first 8 holes of competition in gusting winds. Not all young players have the sheer brilliance of Jon Rahm to adapt quickly. But look beyond a terrible start and Smith again showed his true talent. A recovery to finish 17th was decent enough shooting -13 across 3 and a half rounds of golf. Rounds of -3/70 on Friday and a cracking -5/68 on Saturday showed fortitude. 18 birdies and only 5 bogeys after that disastrous start show the level of golf that the recently crowned Australian PGA Champion is at and remember that both of his professional wins have been on Bermudagrass greens. A fast starting -6/64 put him in 4th spot here 12 months ago and he finished a respectable 27th at -11/269. On his 3rd visit to Waialae, I hazard that Smith is a different level player 12 months down the line and his motivation will undoubtedly continue to remain high as he strives to qualify for Augusta and the 2018 Majors, all of which he has no exemptions for.
Si-Woo Kim 1pt EW 60/1 with Stan James
I will close with Si-Woo Kim whose price again I am very pleased to take. The South Korean, who is a 2-time PGA Tour winner in the past 17 months, is undoubtedly finding some form of late. 3rd at the OHL Classic in November featured a -15/269 total. 6th for Total Driving, 11th for Ball Striking, 3rd for Scrambling, 8th for Putts per Round and 1st for All-Round was undoubtedly his best performance since he won the Players Championship back in May. Last week at Kapalua Si-Woo delivered 4th for Strokes Gained Approach Green, 5th for Strokes Gained Tee to Green, 10th for Putting Average and 6th for All-Round on his way to 10th spot. A pair of -4/69s bookended a solid performance based upon the solid foundation of only conceding 7 bogeys (tied 4th in the field). 4th at the 2016 Sony Open at Waialae highlights a player more than happy with the Waialae test. That week he ranked 12th for Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 6th for All-Round on his way to a -16/264 total. 9th the week after at the CareerBuilder Challenge also highlights a serious liking for TifDwarf Bermudagrass greens.
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Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 17:15GMT 8.1.18 but naturally subject to fluctuation.