Sony Open in Hawaii Preview

Josh Culp
·8 min read

The PGA TOUR began the new year with a playoff in Hawaii. It was Harris English who came out on top, getting right to the point by winning on hole one of the playoff. It snapped a 193-event drought for the Georgia Bulldog, his first win since the 2013-14 Mayakoba.

Next up the TOUR will hop from Maui to Oahu to take on Waialae Country Club.

There will be 144 golfers to start the week at Waialae with the top 65 and ties playing the weekend. It's back to a normal cutline sweat after starting the year with a limited-field, invite-only Tournament of Champions last week.

The Sony Open has been held at just one course over its existence which means plenty of course history to look at. Let's hop right in and discuss the details.

The Course

I've already mentioned it by name a few times but I will say it again. Waialae Country Club is the host venue this week. It's played that role since the inaugural 1965 edition of the Sony Open.

This classical Seth Raynor design plays as a par 72 for the members and also played as a par 72 for the pros up until the 1999 edition. It's been a par-70 layout for the tournament ever since.

After the scorecard flip, there was a stretch where the runner-up score was just 14-under or tougher in 11-of-14 editions. However, that scoring environment has completely reversed course over the last eight years. The median runner-up score over that stretch is 17.5 under-par with runners-up reaching 16-under or better in six of the last eight editions.

What that means is that we should expect boatloads of scoring this week unless the wind whips like it did last year. During the 2020 edition there were veteran golfers that said the course was playing unlike it ever had before. As a result, we saw an 11-under winning score out of Cameron Smith. Do not expect to see scores like that again unless the weather is nasty. We will check on that in a bit.

How does the course play? The first thing we'll notice is that golfers will go from hitting nearly every fairway at Kapalua (some of the widest landing areas on TOUR) to being happy if they hit more than 50 percent this week at Waialae CC. The field averages between 50 and 55 percent of fairways hit, most years at the Sony Open.

The course usually plays firm and fast so that makes that number a bit deceptive. Some of those "missed fairways" will be balls that roll just through the fairway and are still fine for an approach shot. That helps explain why golfers are still able to land an average of 67 percent greens in regulation.

If you look at power versus precision, this course does not require power by any means. The classical design forces golfers into clubbing down on a lot of the par 4s. Not even fairway woods on a lot of them, all the way down to irons off the tee. That is why there are some clear-cut correlated courses. There aren't that many courses on TOUR that mute power the way that Waialae can.

If you look for specific scoring holes, they are easy to find. There are just two par 5s at Waialae but you must take advantage of them. The field average around -1.2 RTP on the two par 5s combined but +0.73 RTP on the rest of the course.

For the grass, they'll see wall-to-wall bermudagrass. The greens generally run a little faster than what we saw last week at Kapalua but they are still on the slower side by TOUR standards (usually around 11 on the stimp).

Course Quotes

Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.

Brandt Snedeker: "You got to really think your way. It's not just step up and bash it. You can hit any club you want to off every tee. You can hit driver if you want, you can hit 4-iron off the tee, and there is really no right or wrong way to do it."

Matt Kuchar: " You can't hit driver, you can't hit 3-wood; you see guys hitting a lot of long irons off the tees, and it's fun to just try to position your ball to determine is it more about getting in the fairway or more about trying to attack the hole."

Zach Johnson: " outside of a couple tee shots, if you can really mull it, you can’t really force it. And I’m familiar with the greens. I like a good Bermuda like this. You have to hit it straight. I mean, if you hit it in the rough, it’s just hard to control shots, and it’s hard to get it close."

Adam Scott: "I just don’t think anyone can get it around this course consistently without scrambling. It is really tough to keep it in play all day and under holes and not be in this gnarly rough."

Justin Thomas: "The biggest thing is just getting it in play, because I can just hit a lot of 2-irons out here and then I’m having short irons in, and I felt comfortable enough with those that I could hit my numbers."

Correlated Courses

Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:

Colonial CC
El Camaleon
Harbour Town
Sea Island Resort
TPC Scottsdale
PGA West Rota

The theme this week is less-than-driver courses with length isn't required. Most also share the bermuda link. I'm not sure how TPC Scottsdale fits into the mix but it leaps off the page in terms of crossover success.

The Weather

Thursday: Partly Cloudy with a high of 82 degrees. Winds at 10 to 14 MPH with gusts up to 20 MPH.

Friday: A chance of showers with a high of 85 degrees. Wins lighter around 6 to 12 MPH without much gusting.

The wind looks relatively light this week, by coastal standards. There is the threat of precipitation all four days but nothing that should disrupt play.

Golfers to Watch

Harris English
He snapped out of a draught last week but how will he follow it up just one week later? That's the magical question that so many gamers ask after a win. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. Every golfer responds differently to a win. For English, he's done it before so the added media requirements likely won't disturb his routine too much. How is his track record at Waialae Country Club? He landed top 10s in three of his first four visits but has since finished outside of the top 20 in each of his last four Sony starts.

Webb Simpson
He outperformed my expectations last week when he finished 17th at the Sentry TOC, despite coming straight off a bout with COVID-19. He had less than one week of practice time leading up to the event but there wasn't much rust. Now he heads to a course where he is 10-for-10 with six straight finishes of T20 or better.

Charles Howell III
If you're continuing to follow that course-history scent then it'll lead you straight to Howell. He's finished inside of the top 15 in nine of his last 12 visits to Waialae Country Club. Overall, he is 19-for-19 at the Sony Open with two runner-up finishes and two third-place finishes (no wins).

Marc Leishman
Another name with stellar results at Waialae CC. The Aussie slumped over the summer and fall but he gained 4.3 strokes tee-to-green last week so perhaps the holiday break got him back into form.

Peter Malnati
There is more than one way to look at course history and sometimes I just want to see what golfers like the greens at a particular course. When I sort by consistency in terms of the percentage of rounds that a golfer gains strokes putting at Waialae Country Club, Mr. Malnati checks in at Number 1 of all golfers with at least 10 rounds played at the Sony. He's a great putter so that's not shocking but to see him gain strokes putting in 84% of his 19 rounds here lets me know that he really loves putting here. Historically he's more of a "go low for one round" type of golfer but we saw him post back-to-back top 5s this fall so there is some upside there.

Ranking the Field

1. Daniel Berger
2. Harris English
3. Webb Simpson
4. Collin Morikawa
5. Joaquin Niemann
6. Abraham Ancer
7. Sungjae Im
8. Adam Scott
9. Hideki Matsuyama
10. Ryan Palmer
11. Russell Henley
12. Kevin Kisner
13. Cameron Smith
14. Jason Kokrak
15. Brendon Todd
16. Billy Horschel
17. Erik van Rooyen
18. Zach Johnson
19. Brian Harman
20. Charles Howell III