SONY OPEN: Though I wouldn’t know personally, I imagine that Hawaii is a fabulous place to kick off the New Year, and this week the PGA Tour makes its annual trek to the island of Oahu for the first full-field event of 2019, the Sony Open.
Waialae Country Club is a familiar venue for most of the field, as it’s played host to this event since its inception in 1965. It’s a par-70 that tips out at a shortish 7,044 yards, with tight, firm fairways that are difficult to find. As a matter of fact, Justin Thomas said this week that the fairways at Waialae are the most difficult to hit on the PGA Tour, so we won’t be seeing too many drivers out of Thomas and his fellow bombers this week; instead, we’ll see a steady diet of 2-irons and fairway woods as players attempt to navigate the many doglegs and avoid the sticky bermuda rough. Though longer hitters have at times had success in this event, with Thomas himself winning in 2017, Waialae is generally regarded as a course that caters to the shorter players, as everybody in the field ends up playing to the same spot off the tee on many holes.
This tournament usually produces some pretty low numbers, but when the wind starts whipping, Waialae can become quite tricky. Patton Kizzire conquered gusty conditions last year to post a 4-round total of 17-under, which was good enough to get into a playoff that he eventually won, but in the previous three years the winning score had been 20-under or better, and with mild conditions forecasted this week and lots of talk about the high quality of the greens, I expect scores to be quite low. That may point you in the direction of guys who don’t have to shake off a whole lot of rust, and here’s something else that should point you in that direction: in the past five year, over three-quarters of the podium finishers at this event had arrived with at least one tournament under their belt since the start of December, and 14 of the last 20 winners here have competed in the limited-field Tournament of Champions the week prior. Ideally, then, we’re looking for someone who didn’t spend the holidays with their feet propped up on the couch. There some incisive analysis, eh?
Let’s see if we can kick off 2019 with a winner:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Charles Howell III (30.0)- Though he’s probably too accomplished of a player to be labeled a “course specialist”, Howell is a guy who traditionally makes the majority of his money at the same handful of Tour stops, and Waialae is certainly among them. He hasn’t missed this event since 2002, and all told he’s racked up nine top-10s in 17 starts, including a pair of runner-ups. But it doesn’t stop there: Howell has never shot worse than 73 at Waialae, and 61 of his 68 career rounds in this event have been par or better. He’s currently working on a streak of 19 consecutive sub-70 rounds here… I mean, the list goes on and on. Of course, he has yet to hoist the trophy, and the most common criticism of Howell throughout his career– a criticism that is totally justified, by the way– has been that he doesn’t win enough. But he tasted victory just two starts ago at the RSM Classic… could that be the long-awaited breakthrough? He was sharp in Kapalua last week, finishing 14th after closing with back-to-back 69s, so everything seems to be aligned. I’m happy to hop aboard at a price like 30.0.
Scott Piercy (70.0)- After a rough patch last summer Piercy found his stride again in the final months of 2018, kicking off the PGA Tour’s wraparound season with three consecutive top-10s spanning October and November. Following a month off he was back in action in Kapalua last week, and he rebounded from an opening-round 76 to finish the week at 6-under par, good for 19th place. Piercy has always found Waialae to his liking– its emphasis on precision short and mid-iron play suits him perfectly. He finished runner-up in this event back in 2015, winning the “tournament within a tournament”, as that was the year that Jimmy Walker absolutely ran away with it, winning by 9 shots. Piercy actually finished closer to the leader the following year, 2016, when he shot 12-under to place 13th, and he was back in the top-25 last year after stringing together four sub-70 rounds. This is the classic “good form meets good course history” play– Piercy should be considered a bargain at the current price.
Steve Stricker (132.0)- Though he’s a part-time Champions Tour player now, Stricker still competes at a high level on the regular tour, making 9 of 12 cuts last season and finishing 32nd or better seven times. He’s especially dangerous at courses where length is not a requirement for success, and Waialae certainly fits the bill, so it should come as no surprise that he has a terrific record in this event, making the cut in 13 of his 14 career appearances and finding the top-10 six times. And though he wasn’t among those in action at the Tournament of Champions last week, Stricker shouldn’t be too rusty after competing in the QBE Shootout last month, where he teamed with Sean O’Hair to tie for 8th in the Greg Norman-hosted team event. It’s been nearly two years since Stricker registered a top-5 on Tour, but he won three times on the Champions Tour last season, so he still knows how to close, and if he’s ever going to find the winner’s circle again on the big tour, it figures to come at a place like Waialae. If you’re looking for a longshot this week, you could do a whole lot worse.