Harris English continued a trend of longtime TOUR players getting their first victory in multiple years, as he won in a playoff on Sunday evening at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui. Since the new season started in September, we have seen Stewart Cink, Sergio Garcia, Martin Laird and now English breakthrough for victories. It could all be happenstance, but it’s certainly an interesting trend to keep an eye on as we continue through the season.
English and playoff opponent Joaquin Niemann will both take the puddle jumper from Kapalua to Waialae Country Club for this week’s Sony Open. These two players will be part of the 28 players that are playing in back-to-back weeks, going from the Tournament of Champions to the 144-man field in Honolulu, a group that includes defending champion Cameron Smith. This is an important group of golfers as you will hear throughout this week how seven of the last nine winners at the Sony were part of the Tournament of Champions field the week before.
The Sony Open has been held at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, Hawaii since 1965 creating a storied history which is matched by very few other venues on TOUR. This week the course will set up as a 7,044-yard par 70 with just two par 5s, which close out each nine.
While there are four water hazards that come into play on five holes at Waialae, the main protection for the course comes in the form of wind. It is the main reason that winning scores have been so widespread from 11-under last year to 27-under in 2017. It’s very early in the week and the wind forecast can change at any time but as of now it looks to be a calm week, setting up for low scoring.
Similar to last week, the course has Bermuda grass greens throughout, but that is just about where the similarities end. The Sony Open track will have much tighter fairways off the tee and play much more into the hands of the plodders against the bombers that saw success in Kapalua. As Matt Vincenzi notes in his key stats article, hitting fairways and greens is always a key to success in this event.
The outward nine at Waialae Country Club will hit the players with four of the five toughest holes on the course within their first six.
Even the opening hole is no bargain as it plays as one of the three toughest each year and averages scores just over par. It is the longest of the par 4s at Waialae, though they have added a front tee box to make it more manageable if the winds do pick up. Overall, it has historically yielded bogey or worse nearly 25% of the time and allowed birdie at a less than 10% clip. Players will be happy to make it through four rounds at even par on the first hole, and frankly, they’d take that on the par 4 second too.
It’s not until the third hole that players will get their first real scoring opportunity. The chance for birdie doesn’t come without some risk though as it will require a precise drive and approach on the 422-yard par 4 to avoid the lake to the front left of the green. We are likely to see more birdies than bogeys on this hole, and it will be the spot for players to jump start a good round.
For DFS purposes on DraftKings, we always want to look at where the opportunities may lie for players to earn a three-birdie streak and the bonus that comes with it. That chance lies towards the middle of the round for the guys that start on the first hole as the par-3 seventh yields birdies more than 17% of the time and plays as the fourteenth toughest hole. The-176 yard hole is short by TOUR standards and will put a comfortable short iron in the hands of the players with just a grouping of bunkers protecting the front of the green. A good approach and birdie here could be the start of a streak that could carry through to the easiest hole on the course at the par-5 ninth.
Hole nine is the easiest on the course by a large margin as a par 5 playing to a scoring average of just 4.34. It’s no surprise that many players can reach the 506-yard hole in two, but the big danger is the out-of-bounds area running down both sides of the fairway on the drive. As long as the golfers can keep it between the white stake outlines, they will have a shot at a hole yielding birdie nearly 60% of the time and an eagle rate of almost 7%.
If players happen to miss an opportunity at holes seven or eight, the 10th is often the third-easiest hole on the course and will provide a second straight birdie opportunity on the shortest par 4 on the course. Listed at just 351 yards on the scorecard this year, players will just need a well-placed drive to the right side of the fairway to put a wedge in their hand.
Things toughen up again at the 13th hole, which is the toughest on the track. We will see bogeys or worse on this 477-yard par 4 nearly four times more than birdie on the previously converted par 5. It will take all they can muster to get out of this hole in even par over four rounds but if they can do it, they will gain nearly a full stroke on the rest of the field.
The signature hole at Waialae Country Club comes at the par-3 17th, where a classic Redan-style green greets the players along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. It’s only a 182-yard approach but the deep bunkering surrounding the green, along with the coastal winds, make par a good score on this hole, especially down the stretch on Sunday.
Last year, the 72nd hole was high drama for the leaders coming in on a windy Sunday. Smith, Brendan Steele and Ryan Palmer all had opportunities to stake their claim to the title or at least a playoff. In the end, Smith and Steele would take a couple of playoff holes to decide the outcome before Palmer went for the hero shot from the fairway bunker and never found his ball after it careened into production equipment down the right side of the hole.
We can only hope the 18th provides this same type of drama in the 2021 Sony Open, as the par 5 is reachable in two at just 551 yards. The biggest key comes off the tee, to avoid the bunker that Palmer could not at the outer edge of the dogleg left. We will undoubtedly see a lot of birdies and eagles on the final hole this week, and it could be the hole to decide this year’s champion.
Several players have a great track record at Waialae Country Club, but few have one that can match up with Charles Howell III. I can’t possibly go through all of his career results at the Sony Open, but in quick review he has two runner-up finishes at the event, hasn’t missed a cut in the last five years and has four top-13 finishes in that five-year span, as well.
Webb Simpson’s five-year snapshot at this event has been even better than Howell’s on average, having played it four times without finishing outside of the top 13. His trump card in that aspect is around two top-four finishes including a third during last year’s tournament. It’s no surprise that he comes into the 2021 event with the lowest odds in the field.
In what is a developing trend, another southeastern United States native also has a strong track record at Waialae Country Club. Kevin Kisner has played in the Sony Open each of the last five years and made the cut in each appearance. He has four top-25 showings to that record, including two fourths and a fifth. He is a prototypical golfer for success at this course as he is known for his ability to hit fairways and greens before rolling in a bunch of putts.
Pictured above: Kevin Kisner
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