It was nearly the perfect start to the year for us at the Sentry Tournament of Champions as our 35/1 pick Joaquin Niemann charged through the field with a final round 9 under 64 on Sunday before ultimately losing out in a play-off to Harris English.
Niemann who as regular readers will know I hold in very high regard was sublime for the vast majority of day four going bogey free and it was just frustrating that he couldn’t close out his round with a birdie at the par 5 18th in regulation to avoid the need for extra time.
English though deserves huge credit as for the vast majority of the day it had looked like he was heading for the typical final day ‘stall’ that often befalls the last group. However he rallied in great style on the back nine and really should have made eagle at the last to close things out in regulation after a superb approach.
Still, he got the job done at the first extra hole bagging the win his great form over the past twelve months deserves and there is no doubt he will be a serious factor in big events over the rest of this year.
So as we lick our wounds from our second play-off loss in this event in as many years after Reed’s near miss last year, we’ll take the positive of a small profit on the week and island hop from Maui to Ohau and head to Honolulu the capital city of the state for the Sony Open, the first full field event of the year.
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.
Thirty Two of the 42 players who teed it up at the Sentry Tournament of Champions are making the trip to Ohau including defending champion Cameron Smith, however the majority of the biggest names who were in Maui such as, D Johnson, Thomas, Rahm and Dechambeau are not in attendance.
At the time of writing Webb Simpson is just edging Collin Morikawa at the head of the market with last weeks winner Harris English and Patrick Reed just behind them.
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;
2020 – C Smith
2019 – M Kuchar
2018 – P Kizzire
2017 – J Thomas
2016 – F Gomez
2015 – J Walker
2014 – J Walker
2013 – R Henley
2012 – J Wagner
2011 – M Wilson
2010 – R Palmer
The most important factor to note here is that seven of the last ten editions of the event, including six of the last seven, 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 last year we were on a streak of six from six in relation to this stat however Cameron Smith’s victory in 2020 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 certainly appears to be the order of the day with 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.
Sentry ToC Finish
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
2011 – M Wilson DNP
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 last year 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 2 the last 10 winners were not American [Smith & Fabien Gomez].
Three of the eight American winners were natives of Texas. Jimmy Walker [twice] & Johnson Wagner. [As was 2009 winner Ryan Palmer]
The other five winners from the US over the past ten years, [Matt Kuchar, Patton Kizzire, Justin Thomas, Russell Henley & Mark Wilson] either hail from southern states or had a proven track record in events played in eastern/southern states of the US.
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 the past couple of years is that the players who have won here in the shape of Matt Kuchar and Patton Kizzire also won the Mayakoba the previous fall, a feat that was also achieved in 2011/12 by Johnson Wagner.
There is no doubt 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 Champiomnship.
Finally while past course form is always useful it doesn’t seem hugely pertinent here. 2018 winner Patton kizzire had missed the cut on his only previous visit, whilst the likes of Fabien Gomez, Ryan Palmer & Mark Wilson had posted nothing higher than a 20th place between them before they won the event, and of course Henley was making his course debut.
Conversely though that 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 last years 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.
The highest winning score in the last 10yrs is -11 from Smith last year when the wind was an issue however in 4 of the last 7yrs the winning score has been -20 or lower so if the wind does not get up this is clearly a low scoring event.
Temperatures look set to sit in the low to mid 80s for the week, however we could see a few rain showers both in the days leading in and across the week, which could soften things up.
The wind, which is the courses main defence looks to be at is strongest at the time of writing on Thursday and Sunday with gusts around the 15mph an hour mark. All in all though it does not look to be a major factor across the week.
As I always say though this could all change!
I have gone with five players this week as follows;
ABRAHAM ANCER – 30-1 – 2pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED - MC
First up for us this week is Abraham Ancer.
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 therefore that will certainly be the focus of my selections this week starting with Ancer.
Ancer is still winless on the PGA Tour however he earned his place at Kapalua last week courtesy of finishing in the top 30 of the Fedex Cup last season and after a sluggish first two days he gained traction over the weekend closing with his best effort of the week a bogey free seven under 66.
Looking at Ancer’s numbers on Maui and he struggled with his long game for the first couple of days however after brushing off the early new year rust he was back to his solid tee to green best on Sunday gaining just over three and a half strokes from tee to green and over three strokes in approach play. In addition he finished the week an eye catching second in driving accuracy and third in strokes-gained-putting. Basically then everything in appears to be in good working order.
One of the shorter hitters on tour the Mexican no doubt was slightly disadvantaged at Kapalua compared to the modern day prototype bigger hitter, however moving on to Waialae he will undoubtedly find a course much more to his liking where shorter hitters tend to prevail.
Ancer has visited Waialae on each of the last three seasons missing the cut on debut and finishing 29th and 38th on his last two starts so no huge encouragement there however as noted earlier past course form is not necessarily a huge factor here and in addition of course he has had the requisite warm up this year at Kapalua unlike before.
If we are looking for further encouragement that Waialae will suit Ancer we can however take this from his form on correlating course elsewhere. Firstly Ancer has performed strongly in his home event The Mayakoba Classic which we know ties well here, finishing eighth, twelfth and ninth over recent years. In addition he finished second at the RBC Heritage last summer and 12th at TPC Sawgrass in 2019, again both events, which tie in well to here.
Finally, while this could be coincidence I pointed out earlier that Texan based players have a strong record here with four of the last eleven winners having had connections with the Lone Star State, where Ancer is based.
All in all Ancer ticks a lot of boxes with his solid, improving, but never seriously in contention effort last week being a perfect fit, and I think he has a great shot at landing his maiden win this time out.
SUNGJAE IM – 20-1 - 2pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED - 56th
Next up for me this week is Sungjae Im.
Im made his debut at Kapalua last week and posted a very credible fifth place finish and in doing so certainly marked our cards as one to keep an eye on in that event moving forward.
The young Korean was in Maui courtesy of his maiden tour win, which came on bermuda greens at the Honda Classic last spring and when you add that to a second place at Augusta 2020 was clearly a breakthrough year for the 22yr old.
At Kapalua Sungjae lead the field from tee to green for the week and was sixth for the week in approach play and it was only the putter that held him back as he was 35th for the week in that department.
With Kapalua’s large undulating greens always posing a challenge to first time visitors this was perhaps understandable and allowing for the fact that he does his best work on Bermuda surfaces I would expect a strong improvement from him with the flat stick this week on a course he has seen a couple of times before.
Talking of Im’s two previous visits here and he has posted solid finishes of 21st and 16th over the past couple of years and on those two occasions he has ranked third and sixth in strokes-gained-off-the-tee here whilst also putting solidly, however his approach play has let him down.
This season however Sungjae has shown a good improvement to date in his strokes-gained-approach-to-the-green numbers ranking 39th so far compared to in the 80s and 90s the last two season and if he can bring that improvement, which he also had in Maui, to Waialae this week and ally it to another strong tee ball performance, then he should certainly be right in the shake up come Sunday as long as he holes his share.
Finally if we look at Im’s form by the coast in general we see that in addition his win at the Honda he was victorious in the Bahamas on the Korn Ferry tour in 2018, so if while he doesn’t have any really obvious correlating form at events like the Mayakoba or RBC Heritage he can clearly handle himself if the wind gets up.
All in all while I will get no awards for originality in siding with Im this week he looks a really solid pick to me and I am keen to have him onboard.
BRENDAN TODD – 45-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 41st
The third player who tee’d it up in Maui to make my team is Brendan Todd.
Of all the players we are siding with this week Todd is perhaps the most obvious selection based on course correlation and while I will confess to finding it hard to get my head around the thought of him winning three times in 18 months I find him impossible to leave out.
Like our first two picks Todd had a strong week in Maui finishing 13th and his two trademark strengths his putter and his accuracy off the tee were in good working order as he ranked fifth with the flat stick and fourth in good old Driving Accuracy.
As we know Todd’s renaissance really came to fruition in the fall of 2019 when he triumphed in back to back weeks at the Bermuda Championship and the Mayakoba, and after that success it is perfectly understandable that he started 2020 a little more sluggishly finishing way down the field at the Sentry ToC in 29th place.
Noticeably though the following week at the Sony he still posted a solid 21st place finish, which remained his best result for the year until he got back on the Bermuda at Bay Hill and finished 18th.
Returning to Todd’s wins in 2019 and the obvious thing to note is that as well as winning by the coast in Bermuda he triumphed at the Mayakoba in an event, which sticks out like a sore thumb with regards to tying in to here. Furthermore he finished eighth in Mexico last year on his defence.
Todd’s affinity to shorter coastal tracks is certainly nothing new as If we go right back to his second year on tour, 2012, his best three performances were 13th here, ninth at Pebble Beach and 14th in Puerto Rico, while 2015 saw further top tens at Pebble Beach and the RBC Heritage where he finished fourth.
All in all to me Todd’s liking for the type of track we have in play this week cannot be ignored and I am keen to have him on side.
BRANDEN GRACE – 100-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
Moving away from players who tee’d it up at Kapalua and I am happy to chance that the winter break wont have done anything to set back the shoots of recovery we saw from Branden Grace at the back end of last year.
I put Grace up in the Mayakoba Classic on his last PGA Tour start and while he didn’t pull up any trees there it didn’t escape my attention that he finished third for the week in Driving Accuracy on his way to 40th place.
The following week Grace then continued his upturn in form by jetting straight off to Dubai for the DP World Tour Championship and notching an eighth place finish.
My reason for chancing Branden in Mexico in December was his liking to the type of track we have on display this week with his really strong record at Hilton Head, which includes a win of course being the obvious pointer.
The early part of 2021 is of huge importance to the South African as his tumble down the world rankings over the past couple of years sees him outside of the world’s top 100 and ineligible for most of the years upcoming big events. In addition if Grace’s poor form from most of last year were to continue through 2021 he could easily find himself without a PGA Tour card come next fall.
From that point of view this is a huge year for the 32yr old and the fact that he stayed on the PGA Tour at the back end of last year rather than choosing to defend his South African Open trophy, and is in Hawaii this week, tells you all you need to know about his commitment to getting back on track in the US.
Finally, talking of Grace’s win in South Africa last year we should not forget that that success basically came in the corresponding week to this and he is an old hand at starting the new year quickly.
Grace has visited Waialae on one previous occasion finishing a creditable 13th and I expect him to turn up this week, raring to go and put in a strong performance.
CT PAN – 150-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
For my final selection this week I shall go from one former RBC Heritage winner to another and roll the dice with CT Pan.
After Pan bagged his maiden tour title at Hilton Head in 2019 things went very much awry and away from a 11th place at the Mayakoba in the fall of 2019 he managed nothing better than 44th all of last season.
After at least making four of his last five cuts in the 19/20 campaign the 20/21 season has started far more positively for the 29yr old and five straight cuts made including a 12th at the Sanderson Farms was a prelude to his tremendous debut performance at Augusta where he finished seventh.
Prior to CT teeing it up in the Masters, where in all honesty I wasn’t expecting too much from him, he was at the top of my ‘long list’ for the following weeks RSM Classic. As you can imagine then I was left with a real conundrum after that performance as while of course it cemented his return to form it also crashed his odds and gave us the potential he would be mentally drained the next week.
On that basis I decided to leave Pan out of my staking plan at Sea Island and ultimately it proved the right decision as he missed the cut.
This week though we have a whole different ball game as he comes here under the radar again at juicy each way odds.
If we look at CT’s record on shorter and/or coastal tracks as well, as his win at the Heritage he has a second at the Wyndham, two top 20s at the Mayakoba and two top 15s at the RSM. Finally he has a second place also by the coast at the Farmers.
The former world number one amateur has only tee’d it up once before at Waialae when he missed the cut back in 2017 however I am happy to overlook that based on his hugely impressive record at this type of venue.
To sum up Pan certainly appears to be approaching his best again and with him rested and ready to go on a track that really should suit him I am happy to finish things off by including him this week.
UPDATED 12th JANUARY
FANTASY DRAFT KINGS PICKS
PICK 1 - AUSTIN COOK - DK VALUE $6900 - FINISHED 47th - DK POINTS TOTAL 77.5
For my first selection this week I am going to run with Austin Cook.
Cook burst on the scene just over three years ago with a win at the RSM Classic, which obviously as a short coastal venue ties in nicely to this week.
After a solid follow up season 19/20 was a real grind for cook and he failed to make the Fedex Cup play offs.
The new campain though has started more promisingly for the 29yr old with the highlight being a second place finish at the Shriners where he lost out to Martin Laird in a play off.
Back this week on a short coastal track, which suits him well and he finished 18th at on his only previous visit I expect a solid start from Cook to the new year.
PICK 2 - HUDSON SWAFFORD - DK VALUE $6800 - FINISHED 25th - DK POINTS TOTAL 90.5
Hudson Swafford returned to the winners enclosure last fall when he took home the trophy by the coast at the Corales Puntacana event.
Swafford's form has slipped again and his start to the new year finishing 35th out of 42 runners at the Sentry ToC on the face of it does not offer much encouragement.
If we look more closely though his best round of the week came on Sunday and his stats were all positive on that day. In addition despite his lowly finish for the week Swafford actually lead the field for the event in Driving Accuracy.
Arrivving this week at a venue, which has been very kind to the Georgian over the year with three top rens and only one missed cut in seven visits, and quite possibly inspired by his good friend Harris English's success at the weekend, I expect Swafford to build on that Sunday effort and turn in a strong performance.