It was a start to 2023 for us that won’t be forgotten for a long time as our pre event 20/1 pick Collin Morikawa managed to let slip a six shot lead over the back nine on Sunday having looked impregnable going bogey free for 63 holes.
With the event playing out at a very unsociable late hour here in the UK I missed watching events unfold live, which probably for my sanity was just as well, however it would seem the two time Major Champion’s downfall came about predominantly as he struggled with his chipping on the 14th and 15th making three consecutive bogeys through 16. As a result then he went backwards on the easiest stretch of the course that he would have expected to pick up a couple of routine birdies on while Jon Rahm gratefully walked through the door playing the final seven holes in 6- under.
While this defeat stings for us it will of course sting much harder from Morikawa and it remains to be seen what demons he will take from this going forward when added to his capitulation at the Hero at the end of 2021.
In the end then with our headline pick Xander Schauffele withdrawing early on Friday with a back injury and our third selection Brian Harman playing solidly but unable to make the frame a week, which for all the world looked like giving us a nice profit to start the New Year saw us come a way with a slight loss. As the phrase goes that’s golf for you!
So with the first event of 2023 wrapped up we dust ourselves down and move on to the second event and the second leg of the ‘Hawaii swing’ the Sony Open.
The Sony Open was first played on the PGA Tour in 1965 and has been held at the same venue Waialae Country Club since its inception.
The first lead sponsor was United Airlines who took up the duties in 1991 before current sponsor Sony took over the reins in 1999.
Nineteen of the 39 players who teed it up at the Sentry Tournament of Champions are making the trip to Ohau including Sungjae Im, Tom Kim, Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth and defending champion here Hideki Matsuyama, however the majority of the biggest names who were in Maui such as, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Scottie Scheffler and Collin Morikawa are not in attendance.
At the time of writing young phenom Tom Kim heads up the market followed by Sungjae Im, Jordan Spieth and defending champion Hideki Matsuyama.
As noted above the event has been hosted at the Waialae Country Club in Honolulu since it was first played on tour in 1965.
The course was designed by Seth Raynor who also designed the Old White Course used for the Greenbrier.
The course is a Par 70 playing to just over 7000 yards and features Bermuda Greens.
The two par 5s are the 9th and the 18th. Both are great birdie opportunities with the 9th usually playing to the easier stroke average of the two.
While the fairways aren’t overly tight at Waialae it is important to find them as the key to success here is accurate approach play in to smallish greens to set up plenty of birdie opportunities. In a nutshell strong iron play and a hot putter will be the order of the day to get the job done.
As is always the case in Hawaii wind is also a key factor here and how much it blows is largely responsible for dictating how tough or otherwise the course will play.
So, let’s take a look at the last ten winners;
2022 – H Matsuyama
2021 – K Na
2020 – C Smith
2019 – M Kuchar
2018 – P Kizzire
2017 – J Thomas
2016 – F Gomez
2015 – J Walker
2014 – J Walker
2013 – R Henley
The most important factor to note here is that eight of the last ten editions of the event, including seven of the last eight , have been won by a player who had played in the Sentry Tournament of champions event the week before, so it pays to focus on those who teed it up at Kapalua.
Until 2020 we were on a streak of six from six in relation to this stat however Cameron Smith’s victory broke the run. Prior to the Aussie’s success the last player to win here without playing in Maui the week before was Russell Henley in 2013. Henley is also officially the only player in the last ten years to bag their first tour title here, however Smith’s previous success was in the Zurich pairs event so realistically you can say he added to that number.
As we can see from the table below, which shows the finish of the winner of the Sony at Kapalua the week before, while it is not necessarily the case that the player who has won in Honolulu was right in the mix at Kapalua, a solid week there has as a rule historically been the order of the day with prior to 2021 Jimmy Walker’s 21st place finish in 2014 being the worst showing of any of the seven winners here who had played the previous week. In 2021 however Kevin Na bucked that trend by winning here having finished a lowly 38th at Kapalua the week before. Last year though it was a case of ‘back to the norm’ as Hideki Matsuyama triumphed on the back of a 13th place finish in Maui the week before.
Sentry ToC Finish
2022 – H Matsuyama 13th
2021 – K Na 38
2020 – C Smith DNP
2019 – M Kuchar 19th
2018 – P Kizzire 15th
2017 – J Thomas 1st
2016 – F Gomez 6th
2015 – J Walker 2nd
2014 – J Walker 21st
2013 – R Henley DNP
2012 – J Wagner 9th
The obvious conclusion from the above is that while great form the week before isn’t a requisite a ‘run out’ the previous week is of significance.
To add to this it is worth noting that although Cam Smith broke the streak in 2020 of winners who had tee’d it up at Kapalua the young Aussie had been in action in the big events held in Australia and in the Presidents Cup well in to December so it could be argued he was still very much ‘match sharp’ when he arrived at Waialae CC.
Only three of the last ten winners were not American [Matsuyama, Smith & Fabien Gomez] while looking at the winners from the US it is clear this event as a whole has been a domain for players who either hail from southern states or had a proven track record in events played in eastern/southern states of the US.
This can bee seen from two wins from Texas based Walker [as will as wins for Texan’s Johnson Wagner & Ryan Palmer in previous years] while four of the other five winners from the US over the past ten years, Matt Kuchar, Patton Kizzire, Justin Thomas and Russell Henley also fit this bill with Vegas resident Na again the one who bucked this pattern.
In other words while you can ‘never say never’, not unsurprisingly allowing for the Bermuda greens, this is not historically an event won by players hailing from the West Coast of the US.
The next stat that certainly leaps out from recent years is that two players who have won here, Kuchar and Kizzire also won the Mayakoba the previous fall, a feat that was also achieved in 2011/12 by Johnson Wagner. Finally, more recently then of course, Waialae specialist Russell Henley added the Mayakoba trophy to his cabinet last Fall.
There is no doubt then that the two courses correlate well!
In addition to form at the Mayakoba it is also worth looking at form at events held at other short coastal tracks such as the RBC Heritage, The RSM Classic and the Bermuda Championship.
Finally on a course correlation front the obvious link with The Greenbrier, also designed by Seth Raynor, is there to see with 2021 winner Kevin Na and runner up Joaquin Niemann both having triumphed at The Old White.
While past course form is always useful it doesn’t seem hugely pertinent here. Last years champion Maysuyama had a best of 12th and only two top 20s in eight previous starts while 2018 winner Patton kizzire had missed the cut on his only previous visit and Fabien Gomez had a best of 67th in three previous visits, and of course Henley was making his debut.
Conversely though 2019 winner Matt Kuchar had a really solid bank of form here, which saw him finish 13th in 2016 and third, sixth and fifth in the three years prior to that while 2020 winner Cam Smith had finished in the top thirty here the previous three years with a best of 18th so he had also built up some good history here.
Jimmy Walker had notched one top five here in plenty of previous visit and Na had played here 13 times prior to winning and had posted three top ten’s amongst plenty of poorer performances and MC so he had a real mixed bag here.
The highest winning score in the last 10yrs is -11 from Smith last year when the wind was an issue however as a rule the winning score has been -20 or lower with Matsuyama posting 23- under last year so if the wind does not get up this is clearly a low scoring event.
We look set for a warm dry week with temperatures in the low to mid 80s.
The wind, which is the courses main defence looks like it could play a part with all days showing possible gusts in the forecast of above 20mph.
As I always say though this could all change!
I have gone with four players this week as follows;
RUSSELL HENLEY – 20/1 – 2pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - Finished 32nd
I will readily admit that there is an air of predictability around the majority of our team this week and first cab off the rank on this front is Russell Henley.
As noted earlier this event has very much been the domain over recent years of players who tee’d it up at the Sentry ToC the week before and Henley is the first of two picks who tick this box.
A four time winner on tour now Henley first came to prominence when producing a superb performance way back in 2013 to land his first tour title on the PGA Tour in his very first start as a full tour member.
Over the following decade there have been plenty of ups and downs for Russell however he arrives here on the tenth anniversary of that first win having landed PGA title number four at the Mayakoba last Fall, an event of course that we know correlates superbly well here.
One of the main things that we have seen develop in Henley’s game over that ten year period is that he has gradually done a full 180 degree turn going from one of the strongest putters on tour and one of the weaker iron players, to become one of the best tee to green protagonists but one of the weakest putters! Either way though this doesn’t seem to have affected Henley’s ability to perform at Waialae as last year he knocked on the door here again before agonisingly losing out in a playoff to Hideki Matsuyama while the previous year he finished 11th here.
As noted earlier, this year of course Henley arrives in Honolulu on the back of a run out at the Sentry ToC courtesy of the Mayakoba win and it must be said that on the surface of things a 30th place finish in a 38 runner field doesn’t really get the juices flowing.
Dig deeper though and it was the case of the same old story for Russell at Kapalua, a really strong ball striking week, third in accuracy, sixth in approach play and sixth in good old fashioned GIR, but a really poor week on the greens, which saw him rank 35th out of the 38 who completed.
Basically then you know pretty much as a rule what you will get from the Georgia Bulldog week in week out, good ball striking and poor putting. Like all players though who struggle on the ‘dance floor’ he does have the occasional strong week on the greens and the key thing here is that one of his best ones last season came here when he ranked third in this department, while when he triumphed at the Mayakoba he was eighth for the week with the flat stick.
I am happy to trust then that at surely one of his favourite venues on tour Russell can bring the confidence from his win in Mexico, his strong ball striking from Kapalua and align it with a great week on the greens, and if he can manage this he must surely be right in the hunt come Sunday afternoon.
BRIAN HARMAN – 22/1 – 1.5pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 32nd
Next up for me this week I will give another chance to Brian Harman.
In a week that has understandably seen the odds of many of the ‘second string’ players who were at Kapalua tumble dramatically from last week as the vast majority of the biggest names who were there sit this one out, there is just enough juice left in Harman’s odds compared to the 40/1 last week to ‘go in again’.
Looking at last weeks effort and Brian played solidly enough to finish 16th ranking third in accuracy, sixth from tee to green and eighth in approach play, however the putter, for which he was ranked 22nd did not quite warm up enough to allow him to do enough to hit the frame.
Ultimately though it was the typical type of solid but unspectacular performance that we have seen so many Waialae champions down the years produce at the Sentry the week before.
With the cobwebs for 2023 nicely blown off then one would hope that the 35yr old can now pick up from where he left off before Christmas and if so it goes without saying that his game is the perfect fit for this week’s test.
Looking at that run before the break Brian chased Henley home at Mayakoba, giving us that nice link again to this week’s venue, while he also came in second at the RSM another event played on short coastal tracks. If we then go back further over the years Brian’s resume is littered with strong performances at short par 70 tracks such as TPC River Highlands, Colonial CC and Hilton Head, basically venues which play perfectly in to his shorter hitting accurate game.
Looking specifically then at Harman’s Waialae form and it has been a mixed bag here over the years however it is noticeable that his best effort here of fourth came back in 2018 the last time he had the benefit of teeing it up Waialae the week before.
A two time tour winner Harman has clearly been trending towards a third win over the past 12 months or so and this looks a perfect opportunity to me for him to bag that long overdue next trophy for his cabinet.
CAMERON DAVIS – 40/1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 32nd
Moving away from players who tee’d it up at Kapalua I am keen to side with Aussie Cameron Davis.
I noted earlier that the one exception over recent years in relation to winners of this event having played at the Sentry ToC the week before was Davis’ fellow countryman Cameron Smith and the Aussie arrives here having been active in his homeland through December just as Smith had in 2020.
Furthermore Davis followed up a top ten at the Aussie PGA and another solid performance at the Australian Open with a win at the Sandbelt Classic just before Christmas, which although not a high profile event will certainly have boosted confidence further.
So we have established that Davis should arrive here in good spirits but what of his suitability to this event/course. Well firstly we can take confidence in the fact that in four previous visits here after missing the cut on his first sighting of Waialae CC Cam has played solidly on his last three outings with a best of ninth to his name in 2020.
If we then dig a bit further in to those last three visits we will find plenty more encouragement in Cam’s stats. Firstly in 2020 Cameron ranked fourth from tee to green on the week but really struggled on the greens ranking 72nd. The following year then despite finishing a lowly 31st he ranked first off the tee for the week but struggled more with his approach play and again more so on the greens, however last year he performed much better on the greens and was sat in the top ten heading in to Sunday before a sluggish final day saw him slip down to 27th. Clearly then Davis has what it takes to perform here and it is just a case of him putting all the components together on the one week.
Moving away from form at Waialae and if we look at the Aussie’s profile in general, not unsurprisingly as a player who was brought up by the coast in Australia and has an Australian Open title to his name, in his short time on the PGA Tour he has already caught the eye as a player to watch on coastal tracks.
Firstly, way back in 2016 in his first PGA Tour start he posted a 15th place at the correlating Mayakoba, while he than notched one of his best efforts of his first full season in 2018 at Puerto Rico. Roll on to the next season and his ninth place here was only bettered by an eighth place on the Bermuda at the Honda. Last season meanwhile he performed very nicely at the Sentry to finish tenth before posting a third place at Hilton Head, which certainly sits very well here.
Furthermore Cam has also shown at venues like Sedgefield CC and Colonial CC that he has a fondness for shorter par 70 tracks in general, which of course is significant for this week.
All in all Davis is a player I rate highly and can see pushing on to big things this year so I am keen to have him onside this week in an event, which I believe is right in his wheelhouse.
HARRIS ENGLISH – 50/1 – 1.5pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 73rd
Finally this week I will wrap things up by risking Harris English to come out of the gates strongly in his first start of 2023.
As most readers will probably know English’s 2022 was derailed by a torn labrum in his right hip, which saw him sit things out after this event for five months while he underwent surgery and then recuperated.
After returning in the summer Harris struggled to gain any real momentum in the seven starts he made in the remainder of the season missing the cut on four occasions and managing a best of 19th at the Travelers.
Moving in to the 22/23 campaign though it has been a much improved picture as Harris has played the weekend on six of seven starts with a best of ninth at the Fortinet Championship.
A former winner at the Mayakoba, which of course sits really well here the Georgia man has also triumphed on Par 70 tracks at TPC River Highlands and TPC Southwind, while his fourth and most recent PGA Tour title came in Hawaii at the Sentry in 2021.
Following on from this and a look at English’ CV here makes very interesting reading for a few reasons to me.
Firstly if we look at his last two visits here clearly last year he was already injured as this was the last time we saw him for five months, while in 2021 he was teeing it up on the back of his great comeback win at Kapalua the week before. Meanwhile patchy results here over the proceeding four visits mostly tied in with his well-documented slump. To me then we need to go back to his three top tens on the spin in 2013, 14 and 15 to when we last saw the real Harris English here fully focused and fit.
It is clear that English loves this venue and when on song he can really shine here. On that basis in an event, which undeniably has lots of question marks around it as is in keeping with the first full field event of the year I am happy to risk English to be raring to go on one of his favourite venues at juicy each way odds.