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Defending Champ: Jimmy Walker
Hawaii, take two.
Historically, the Sony Open was the first full-field event of the PGA season. And really, it still is, despite the actual season kicking off back in October with the Frys.com Open. While the swing-season sees a splattering of superstars, it’s mainly third-tier veterans and a host of recent Web.com Tour Grads. It’s essentially an extended pre-season.
Most of the elite players who hit Hawaii last week for the Tournament of Champions have taken off for the Middle East to prep for the Abu Dabhi and Qatar events. Still, enough names have stuck around to tee it off at Waialae to pad the field. Two-time defending champ Jimmy Walker has stayed in an attempt to become the TOUR’s first three-peat winner since Steve Stricker won the John Deere from 2009-2011. Brandt Snedeker, Kevin Kisner, Zach Johnson, Justin Thomas, Chris Kirk, Danny Lee, and ten others have decided to plant their flags in Hawaii another week as well. Tough life. Adam Scott is teeing off for the for first time in 2016 too, along with Kevin Na and Matt Kuchar. Not the weakest field you’ll see this year.
Sony Open Key Stats
Par 4 Efficiency 450-500 yards
Par 3 Efficiency 175-200 Yards
A quick scan of previous Sony Open champs reveals very little, at least for predictive metrics. All different styles of players have claimed victory at Waialae CC. However there does seem to be a common trait among the winners: You’ve actually heard of them. At some of these weaker field events, you’re going to going to find a couple winners that you literally didn’t know existed. Not the case at The Sony. A “name” usually wins. Mark Wilson is probably the most unrecognizable winner this millennium, and he has five PGA wins to his credit. Upon closer inspection, Paul Goydos may be known by fewer people. Point is, I wouldn’t start going crazy mining value from the back end of this field. This isn’t the week.
Since there appears to be little correlation between the styles of Jimmy Walker and Zach Johnson, digging deeper into the scorecard begins guiding you in the right direction. With Waialae playing as a Par 70, Par 4 scoring is imperative. But merely scouting generic Par 4 scoring may do you a disservice because there’s a clear split in the difficulty of the holes. Of the 12 Par 4s on the course, five are longer than 450 yards; seven are shorter. All five of the 450-plus yard holes play over par; only one of the seven sub-450 yards yields scores in the black. The short Par 4s are easy; the entire field is going to feast on them. The separation between those at the top of the leaderboard and those searching for discount flights from Honolulu International is going to be the lack of damage incurred on those lengthy Par 4s. Players don’t need to make a ton of birdies on those holes (it wouldn’t hurt), they just need to tread water and not bleed strokes back to the field. When the winning score is likely going to hover around -20, bogeys can’t be a part of the formula.
The only other holes where players need to dodge bogeys are on three of the Par 3s; all measuring between 194-204 yards. If you ever wonder why Jerry Kelly has had so much success at the Sony Open, it’s because he’s still deadly from this range. Even at his advanced age, Kelly was second in Par 3 efficiency scoring from 175-200 yards in 2015.
Sony Open Picks
Adam Scott & Tony Finau
Many have swore off Adam Scott after he abused Fantasy teams all last season; I’m willing to give him another shot, though. Something clicked with Scott since dominating his singles match at the President’s Cup. Playing like he’d lost his confidence for most of 2015, Scott seemingly regained it all back – instantly – blowing out Rickie Fowler 6 & 5. In six starts since, the former World No. 1 has five T10s. If Scott is truly back to elite form, this may be an opportunity to get him into your lineup at a low ownership, while others are too chicken, playing the wait-and-see game… Tony Finau never really challenged for a victory during the swing-season, but he improved in each start (T32, T16, 9th), even tacking on some extra reps on the Japanese Tour before the year closed. Finau lurked on leaderboards all throughout his rookie season, and many predicted his breakthrough would come. It never did. Many will look at his MC from last year and immediately dismiss him, but he fits the profile of a potential winner: An ascending bomber, who crushes Par 4s from the key distance, and he will have no issues making easy birdies on the Par 5s and shorter Par 4s. Finau was eighth in efficiency scoring from 450-500 yards in 2015.
A-List Alternates: Justin Thomas & Chris Kirk
Russell Knox, Jimmy Walker, Zach Johnson & Kevin Kisner
I may feel like a dummy come Sunday without Brandt Snedeker on my roster, but I couldn’t go pure chalk in all four spots. Jimmy Walker will be owned on 100-percent of teams, and justifiably so. No need to get cute and fade him while he goes for his third consecutive Waialae win… After Walker, Zach Johnson and Kevin Kisner have the pedigree I’m looking for at a weaker event like this. Don’t be concerned about using up their starts this early in the season either. Once the TOUR hits the Arizona/California swing, you’ll be leaving them off your squad anyway; may as well get them in now while they are top tier options… After Russell Knox underwhelmed last week at the Tournament of Champions (27th), he’ll be firmly off the collective’s radar, despite finding himself in a great situation. After missing the cut in his first three starts at this event, the Scot notched a T13 in 2015, really putting his skill set to good use. Knox has the best 450-500 yard Par 4 scoring efficiency of anyone in the field (5th in 2015), and is still currently in the best stretch of his career. Knox is up to No. 30 in the world rankings in the midst of a T21/1st/T2/24th/27th run, and really, his result would have been much better last week if he could have just made a putt. Somehow, Knox only managed 15 birdies despite hitting 89 percent of fairways. That’s tough to do, and likely won’t repeat.
B-List Alternates: William McGirt, Danny Lee, Jim Herman & Jerry Kelly
Kevin Na &
Will Wilcox Matt Kuchar
The flameout was coming for Kevin Na, we just didn’t know when he’d morph into a pumpkin. After a HOT FIYA run from the FedEx Cup playoffs into the swing-season (T10, T16, 2nd, T2, T3), Na came up lame at the WGC – HSBC Champions, leaving China with a 57th place finish, then called it quits for the year. Now, after a two-month rest, he returns to a course where he’s incredibly seasoned, even if it’s been with mixed success. Na has played the Sony Open every year since 2008, piling up three T10s along with a pair of MCs. Not shocking if you’re familiar with his combustable nature. However, I’m willing to gamble he looks more like the player we saw for most of 2015; the one with immaculate iron control, solid putting, and a penchant for making birdies on Par 3s from the key distance (5th in 2015 from 175-200 yards)… Only injuries could derail the interweb’s favorite golfer, Will Wilcox. After a two-event run when he injured himself (MC), then tried to play through it two weeks later (WD), THRILLCOX responded with a T17 at Mayakoba and a T7 in Japan to finished the year. After an uber-consistent rookie campaign, Wilcox is primed to make the leap this season, and Waialae seems like an ideal place for a breakthrough. He placed T8 in his first career start last year and checks out statistically (like always); Wilcox was 3rd in this field from the key Par 4 range in 2015 while sitting 18th from the 175-200 yard Par 3 distance. You know what? I’m too big of a coward to pull the trigger on Wilcox. I see Matt Kuchar’s four consecutive T10s at this event, likely a product of his field-best scoring average on Par 70s, and I just can’t pass on that safety.
C-List Alternates: Daniel Berger & Will Wilcox