Perhaps the most fun aspect of the fortnight in Hawaii which opens every year on the PGA TOUR is the huge contrast between the two venues. Last week, the Plantation Course at Kapalua was hilly, long, with massive fairways and greens. Waialae Country Club, on the other hand? Very different. It’s flat, short, with tight fairways and tiny greens. It’s not all change, however. There are still Bermuda grass greens and the laid back tropical island vibe remains.
Last time out
Not a great week for our picks, but it had to happen sooner or later. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that the outlandish lack of wind and soft turf took past angles out of the equation. The good news is that we were wary of both Brooks Koepka and, especially, Jason Kokrak. They proved to be smart swerves, finishing T–28 and last.
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Sungjae Im ($10,300): The Korean, a mighty collector of weekend golf everywhere, is duly 3-for-3 at Waialae. Skeptics might wonder that he is yet to land a top 10 in the tournament, but that appears to be merely a matter of time rather than a hurdle he’ll struggle to clear. He’s played four rounds of golf in each and every start since the Memorial Tournament in June, he’s been top 25 in eight of his last nine event, and he has three top 10s (including a win) in his last four appearances. He warmed up with T–8 at Plantation.
Denny McCarthy ($7,400) A debutant on the course and in the tournament, but he looks like a might neat fit for the test. In his first crack at the PGA Tour he played his best golf in the Dominican Republic and at TPC Southwind. In his improved second go he’s landed top 20s at Jackson, Innisbrook, Houston, Port Royal, Sea Island, Sedgefield, PGA National, Harbour Town and El Camaleon. In other words, he plays Bermuda greens very well and is not afraid of twisty tracks or a sea breeze. The real question is: ‘Why has it taken him so long to get to Waialae?’
Matt Kuchar ($7,500) Opposing the 2019 winner? Yes. He won that event off the back of five straight top 15 finishes on the course and since the win? Two missed cuts. He’s lost his Waialae mojo. Last summer he went six starts with just one cut made, and that was T–50. He improved to play five in six before Christmas, but there was no top 20. There are simply better options this week at this sort of price.
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Waialae Country Club
An ever-present on the PGA TOUR since 1965, this track is one we know inside out and so do the players. It’s a short (7,044 yard) par-70 with five of the 12 par-4s at around 400-yards or shorter. That might indicate that the layout is intensely vulnerable to big-hitters, however it’s a rather more interesting puzzle than that.
First of all, the holes are frequently doglegged. Secondly, the fairways are tree-lined. They are not densely tree-lined, but there are enough obstructions, and they are close enough to the tightly mown grass, to represent an obstacle to mindless blasting from the tee. Then there is the difficulty of hitting approach shots into the tiny greens from the gnarly Bermuda grass rough.
The result? Take a look at these player quotes. Zach Johnson: “You have to hit it straight. If you hit it in the rough, it’s hard to control the ball and hard to hit it close.” Daniel Berger: “You have that Bermuda rough where you catch those fliers. So, if you’re not in the fairway you can’t attack the pins. That’s a big difference.”
That strain of grass is also a factor with the short stick. “Statistically, the most important quality is putting,” said Berger. “Guys that putt well here have the best chance to win.” Kevin Na explained why: “The greens roll great but the difficult part is the grains, which are difficult to judge. If you can read these greens, you’re ahead of the field.”
The weather forecast for Honolulu, Hawaii is not ideal in the sense that, like last week, the wind is forecast be almost non-existent. That matters because we saw spectacular scoring conditions last week and we can expect similar this. The temperatures will be in the 70s, so will humidity, and there is little chance of rain. But currently the breeze will be about 10mph tops, which is nothing and a great pity. It’s a better course, and contest, with wind.
Past Winners of The Sony Open
There’s no need for us to head back into the 1960s to get a grasp on what the honor’s board tells us about this event. Let’s, instead, stick to the last two decades or so (not least because after John Huston thrashed a record 28-under total of 260 in 1998 the card was turned into a par-70; they Huston-proofed it).
Nuggety players with lots of smarts have triumphed here: Jeff Sluman, Paul Azinger, Brad Faxon and Jerry Kelly kicked it off post-par change. That was followed by back-to-back wins for South Africa’s Ernie Els (superb in wind) and he was denied a hat trick of triumphs by Vijay Singh, who pushed The Big Easy into second in 2005.
In the wake of those wins came successes for specialists: golfers who could play Bermuda grass greens and in the wind. The likes of David Toms, Paul Goydos, K.J. Choi, Zach Johnson, Ryan Palmer, Mark Wilson, Johnson Wagner and Russell Henley.
In the next four years Jimmy Walker (twice) and Justin Thomas halted that trend of conditional experts, but Fabian Gomez stuck his hand up for them in 2016 and Patton Kizzire and Matt Kuchar resumed the pattern in 2018 and 2019. It’s notable that four recent winners (Wilson, Wagner, Kizzie and Kuchar) are also winners at El Camaleon – they are very similar tests.
Two years ago Cameron Smith, who likens Waialae to the courses he played at home in Queensland, Australia, landed a first win on the PGA TOUR and, of course, he arrives this week as the newly-minted Tournament of Champions winner. He was succeeded by Kevin Na, who posted a brilliant 61-65 at the weekend. Remember that Justin Thomas carded a 59 in his win – low scoring is possible this week and looks likely.
Course form? Yes. It has worked in the past, winners here usually have layout experience, and the test is distinct enough for it to remain that way. Golfers who played the Tournament of Champions tend to do well at Waialae. It’s partly obvious (they are recent winner so very good at golf), partly they welcomed a rust removal exercise, and it also helps that they were competitively putting on grainy greens. Good approach play is vital. Five of the last six winners ranked top seven for Strokes Gained Approach. If players don’t feature in this category they are missing fairways and not giving themselves a look at the birdies that will flow if the small greens are hit. Good putting will matter. The traditional stat of Putt Average is actually useful this week because players need to drain birdies (the last five winners all ranked top six in the category).
Here’s Another Alternate of Core Picks For The Sony Open
|C. Howell III
Webb Simpson ($10,500) As has been proved in these previews over the last year there are few bigger fans of Webb Simpson on Bermuda grass than us. In fact, in the last four calendar years he’s played on grainy greens 39 times landing 30 top 20s, 21 of them top 10 with no less than 10 top three finishes. And Waialae totally fits within that trend. He’s played 11 times, logging 10 weekends of golf, eight of them top 20s, including three straight top fives. He missed out on a win last year so made no start last week, but he’s no fool and is making the trip this week. Take the hint because he doesn’t like flying.
Talor Gooch ($9,100) One of the form players of 2021/22, Gooch opened his Sony Open account with T–18 back in 2018, but followed it with two missed cuts and T–63. Not too exciting, but he’s a better player now and living up to that first appearance. He’s made seven starts this season, finished T–16 or better in six of them, led after 18 holes in the exception, and was a winner at Sea Island where low scoring (62-65-67-64) on a coastal course with Bermuda grass sounds ideal if he can repeat it. He played last week, closing with a pair of 67s. Ninth this season for SG Approach.
Jason Kokrak ($8,600) We’re swimming against the tide of salary cappers and bookmakers with this one. Kokrak has won three times in his last 30 starts (four in 31 if you add the QBE Shootout). That’s a great CV for a golfer this price. Moreover, one win came at Colonial (lots of doglegs, as here), one at Houston (Bermuda greens), and the Shootout saw him win alongside this week’s defending champ Kevin Na. He’s made his last five cuts at the course and three times been in the top 10 at some stage in the week. He’s a better player now and the salary reflects a bad week at Plantation. But, as we highlighted last week, he plays undulations badly. He prefers the flat.
Charles Howell III ($8,000) Another favorite of ours because of a simple equation: If he likes an examination, let Charlie sit it for you. He’s made 20 starts at Waialae, logging 18 weekends and a dazzling 17 of them were T–32 or better (10 were top 10s). He’s neat and tidy from tee to green, he’s not fazed by small targets, and he’s not flustered by grainy greens.
Branden Grace ($7,100) The South African played last week which is a tick. His T–33 was a little marred by just one very poor round and he’s a far better fit for this week (flat rather than hilly). He finished T–13 on debut at the course in 2017 which is a better guide than the rust-removing missed cut last year. Soon afterward, he won the Puerto Rico Open and he’s a past winner at Harbour Town – both excellent pointers for this week. Good value at the price.
Kevin Kisner ($8,900) Another golfer we like in the right circumstances and, most often, these would be them. He relentlessly tells us that he can’t win some weeks and eyes the short, ball-striking opportunities. Last year he even highlighted Waialae as one of them. But that was as much about the fast-running conditions as his course form (three top fives). This week is going to be soft and that plays out of his hands. His course record is not pristine, either. He opened with four missed cuts and has three times in the last four years not made the top 20. All of that could be overlooked were he a value price, but not at $8,900.
Other Player Options For The Sony Open
• Tom Hoge came very close to selection. True, he’s missed four cuts here but he was T–12 in 2020 and T–3 in 2018 (when the 54-hole leader). Remember SG Approach? He’s been top 10 in his last two starts for the category (he’s second for the season) and was T–4 at Sea Island.
• Heard of Takumi Kanaya? If you haven’t, you may soon do. The Japanese golfer was a World Amateur No. 1 who won a Japan Tour event before joining the pro ranks. He’s won twice again since making the switch and he ended 2021 with 12 top 16 finishes in 13 starts including T–7 at the ZOZO Championship. It helped him crack the top 50 in the world rankings.
• Englishman Aaron Rai is a two-time winner on the European Tour who earned his card through the Web.com Finals and initially struggled, missing the cut in his first three events. But he ended 2021 by making four weekends, the last three of them top 20s, and he currently ranks fifth for SG Approach in the season.
COVID-19 and Injury Warning:
Pro DFS players know it makes sense to stay up-to-date on Twitter, DraftKings, FanDuel and-or subscribe to any number of email feeds and whatever to remain up to speed with injuries or COVID-19 withdraws. Players that don’t make the cut are tough enough. Players that don’t play all four rounds (even when pulling out at the last minute) make for a pretty weak lineup.
Go win your lineups and then tell us how you did. Twitter (@FantasyDFSX) is a good place for that.
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