SONY OPEN: Back to the grind, eh? Of course, when you’re a PGA Tour player “the grind” consists of a January trip to Hawaii, several nights at a top-notch resort, and a few rounds at Waialae Country Club, while for us it means a return to staring at computer screens and television sets as we attempt to predict the future. Still, it’s nice to have golf back as a regular part of our lives, and we’ll be burning the midnight oil this week as we take in the late-night coverage of the year’s first full-field event, the Sony Open.
The course is a familiar one, as this will mark the 53rd time that Waialae has hosted this tournament, which speaks volumes about the layout. It’s fairly short (7,044 yd. par-70) and not dramatically penal, with water only coming into play on a couple of holes, but it’s not the type of course you can overpower and it definitely requires some shotmaking with the irons. The greens are small and can be tricky to find, especially when the wind picks up, and the grainy Bermuda grass is perhaps the course’s defining feature– seven of the past eight winners of this event hail from parts of the world where Bermuda is prevalent (in this case we’re talking about the Southern United States and South America, but South Africa and Australia also apply).
Justin Thomas is the defending champion and is currently trading at 10.0 at BETDAQ, right below market leader Jordan Spieth (6.2). Thomas broke the PGA Tour’s 72-hole scoring record here last year with a four-round total of 253 (27-under), so he’s certainly comfortable with the course, but he didn’t play particularly well at Kapalua last week, finishing 22nd in a 34-man field, and he’ll be without his usual caddie this week (the replacement is veteran “Bones” McKay, but still..), so there’s enough uncertainty to keep me away. I’m also avoiding Spieth, who opened with a 75 last week and could never get it going on the greens. No one would be shocked if he turned it around and lapped the field this week, but 6.2 is a little short for my liking.
Besides, there are plenty of other interesting options, and this tournament has been kind to the long-odds types over the years. With that in mind, here are three recommendations:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Cameron Smith (42.0)- Smith has quietly played some great golf over the past few months, notching top-5 finishes in both the CIMB Classic and the CJ Cup in October and then picking up another one in November’s Australian Open, where he broke 70 in all four rounds to finish solo 4th. He returned to competition at Kapalua last week and started slowly with an opening-round 75, but he quickly shook off the rust and was 10-under over the final three rounds. So he’s in good form at the moment, and his experiences in this tournament have mostly been positive– he’s made the cut in both of his appearances and has broken par in six of his last seven competitive rounds at Waialae, including all four rounds last year. He’s shown he can go low, too, opening with a 64 last year and then getting it to 5-under thru 12 holes (13-under for the tournament) on Saturday before making a couple of bogeys coming in. The 24-year old is still learning how to win, but that’s about the only knock on him right now. He’s a great value at better than 40/1 this week.
Si Woo Kim (46.0)- Kim cooled off a bit after his life-changing win at The Players Championship last year, as he would go on to make only one cut in his next six events. The young Korean seems to have found his form again, however, finishing 3rd in November’s OHL Classic and then finding the top-10 in Kapalua last week, where he was 5-under over his final 14 holes. He plays his best golf on Bermuda grass, so that should work to his advantage this week, and he should be very comfortable and confident at Waialae after finishing 4th in this tournament in 2016– his first and only appearance. Kim has proven to be a “high ceiling” type, so if he gets it rolling this week there’s no reason to think he can’t ride the wave all the way to victory. This is a good spot for him.
Jamie Lovemark (72.0)- After a terrific amateur career many expected Lovemark to be an instant star on Tour, but it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. Still, the 29-year old has tremendous ball-striking ability and may yet be a force in the years to come. He hasn’t teed it up in a couple of months but he found the top-5 in October’s CJ Cup, so we know he was playing well in the not-too-distant past, and he’s traditionally played his best golf early in the season. Much of that early-season success has come right here at the Sony Open– Lovemark finished 4th here last year and tied for 7th in 2016, a record that’s all the more impressive when you consider that those are two of his ten-best career PGA Tour finishes. This is a “horses for courses” sport, and at Waialae, Lovemark is a horse you want to back. I’m happy to take a chance on him this week at a price like 72.0.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Charles Howell III (1.9) vs. Gary Woodland (1.9)
Woodland has had a rough go of it over the last 9 months or so, only finding the top-15 once in his past twenty starts. He has a nice record at Waialae and surely worked on his game over the offseason (he hasn’t teed it up in competition in over two months), but I don’t think I’ll be throwing any money at him until I get some hard proof that he’s right again. Howell may not win as often as he should, but he’s as reliable as they come at Waialae, making the cut here in all 16 of his career appearances and logging eleven top-15 finishes. Recommendation: Howell at 1.9
Marc Leishman (1.79) vs. Brian Harman (2.08)
Both of these guys played well last week, with Harman finishing 3rd and Leishman settling for 7th after a third-round 76. Leishman is certainly the more decorated player, but Harman’s recent results have been eye-opening– in four starts since October he’s finished no worse than 8th. And we have plenty of course history to inform us here, as both of these guys play this event every year: though they’ve both experienced success at Waialae, you have to go back to 2014 to find the last time Leishman beat Harman in this tournament. Recommendation: Harman at 2.08