SONY OPEN: After a blink-and-you-missed-it offseason and last week’s limited field Tournament of Champions, the PGA Tour returns to action this week with the first full-field event of the 2020s, the Sony Open.
Waialae Country Club on the Hawaiian island of Oahu has played host to this event since its inception in 1965, so there won’t be any surprises this week. It’s a par-70 that tips out at a shortish 7,044 yards, with tight, firm fairways that are always difficult to find. Because of that we’ll see most players leave the driver in the bag for much of the week, choosing instead a steady diet of 2-irons and fairway woods as they attempt to navigate the many doglegs and avoid the sticky bermuda rough. Though longer hitters have at times had success in this event, 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. Last year was mostly calm and Matt Kuchar posted 22-under, making it 4 times in the last 5 years that the winning score has been 20-under or better. But this year, 35 MPH winds are expected on both Thursday and Friday before things are supposed to calm down a bit on the weekend. That should make things quite interesting, and the difficult conditions may point you in the direction of guys who don’t have to shake off a whole lot of rust. Here’s something else that should point you in that direction: in the past six years, 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 15 of the last 21 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 2020 with a winner:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Webb Simpson (16.0)- Simpson played some good golf in 2019, leading the PGA Tour with 5.88 birdies per round, and he closed the year in style with runner-up finish at the RSM Classic and a 10th-place showing in December’s Hero World Challenge. He begins his 2020 campaign at one of his favorite stops on the schedule, as he had this to say about Waialae a couple of years ago: “I’m comfortable here. I love playing this golf course. I’ve come every year except once since 2009. I love Waialae, I really do.” His results back those sentiments up, as he’s found the top-20 in each of his past five starts in this event, including a T4 in his last appearance, back in 2018. If he can find a rhythm with the putter, he’ll be tough to beat this week.
Joaquin Niemann (34.0)- This will be Niemann’s debut at the Sony, but he’s made something of a habit of devouring courses upon his first visit during his brief professional career. And Waialae seems tailor made for him, especially with the wind howling like it’s expected to this week, as Niemann’s low ball flight and terrific iron play make him especially dangerous on tight, windy courses. He found the winner’s circle back in September at The Greenbrier, another par-70 track the requires precision with the irons, and he played very well in Kapalua last week, holding the lead after an opening-round 66 and going on to finish 5th. So he’s carrying some momentum into this week, and he’s well-equipped to handle the challenges that mother nature is expected to present. At better than 30/1, Niemann may be my favorite bet on the board.
Rory Sabbatini (80.0)- After a lengthy slump that many thought may signal the end of his career, Sabbatini came roaring back to life with a big year in 2019, notching 11 top-25s and five finishes of 6th-place or better while ranking in the top-30 in birdies, scoring average, and strokes gained tee-to-green. He’s only missed one cut since last July, and has shot 72 or better in 32 of his past 34 competitive rounds. In other words, Sabbatini is back to top form, and though he hasn’t played since November’s RSM Classic, he does have a nice record at Waialae, making the cut in 4 of his past 5 appearances at this event and finishing 6th in 2015. It’s been awhile since his last PGA Tour victory– 2011, to be exact– but he’s at the top of his game and playing a familiar venue where he’s experienced success in the past. If you’re looking for a live longshot this week, you could do a lot worse than Sabbatini.