Despite it being a busy time of year in sports, the Sony Open remains a mainstay on the PGA calendar and, as per usual, it marks the second official event of the new year. A landmark on the PGA since its inception in 1965, this event has featured plenty of international winners like Isao Aoki and Ernie Els, while also becoming one of the favorite stops of many veteran PGA Tour pros. Its place at the start of the calendar and outside the mainland USA gives it a bit of an international feel too as the tropical temperatures offer a way for most pros to ease into the year before the tougher courses ahead on the West Coast and in Florida.
While a lot of the field from last week will be making the puddle-jumping flight across the islands to play in Honolulu as always we do lose some of the bigger names attached to the Tournament of Champions. Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, and Jon Rahm are all headed to the mainland this week but the likes of Webb Simpson, Daniel Berger, and last week’s champion Harris English will all be competing at Waialae. Their involvement is significant as the trends here have certainly favoured players who have played the week prior with seven of the last nine winners at the Sony Open having played the week before in Maui.
Despite the trend, the two Hawaii tournaments couldn’t be more different. While the TOC offers a limited-field event on a big sprawling course, the Sony Open is a more cozy affair that takes place on the classic design of Waialae Country Club, a tree-lined venue that features some of the tightest fairways on Tour. While the venue has produced some low winning scores of late–Justin Thomas blitzed it to 27-under par in 2017–wind and rain can factor in here and they certainly did in 2020. Last year we saw the highest winning score here since 2005 when Cam Smith took home his first PGA win at just 11-under par.
The forecast doesn’t look quite as poor as last year although there is some rain in the forecast for Sunday which could limit scoring. Wind is supposed to be up to 15 mph on Thursday but then be relatively calm the rest of the week. Expect a return to lower scoring this year as the previous four winners prior to Smith all reached 17-under or better.
Sony Open course details
Waialae Country Club, used from 1965-to present
- Field Size: 144 players
- Purse and Winner’s Prize: 6.6 million (winner 1.188 million)
- 7,044 yards, Par 70
- Greens: Bermuda
- Fairway: Bermuda
- Rough: Bermuda
- Architect: Seth Raynor (built in 1927)
- Alterations: Renovations by Robert Trent Jones, Desmond Muirhead, Rick Smith, Tom Doak
- 2020 – Cameron Smith -11
- 2019 – Matt Kuchar -22
- 2018 – Patton Kizzire -17
Waialae is one of the oldest venues on Tour and really hasn’t gone through any massive restorations of late, which means we have a lot of course history data we can flex on if we want to here. Ultimately, the players who have success here are the same kinds of players we find challenging at other classic venues across the PGA, where the length of the course doesn’t really present much of a problem to even the middling to below-average drivers of the ball. Harbour Town GL, Colonial, Sedgefield PGA Stadium, and even PGA National all have big similarities and results there can be viewed as indicators of how a certain player might perform over here if they don’t have a ton of Waialae course history to back them up.
The Par 70 at Waialae likely lands in the softer side of that group above, as it features just two par 5’s, but both offer the players great shots at birdies and will also produce multiple eagles from the field throughout the week. While there are five Par 4’s that measure in over 450-yards in length only one has consistently produced a scoring average over 4.15 as the rest tend to play close to par for the week and are still birde-able if the pin is accessible. The fairways here are some of the tightest on Tour, as the field typically averages just around 52-54% driving accuracy (far below the Tour average) but the rough here generally isn’t all that penal, although last year the wet weather made it more difficult and also made the longer Par 4’s play much tougher as a result.
There’s not much poor weather in the forecast this week though so off the tee problems likely won’t be many for the players who will be focused on placement overpower on most holes. The winners at Waialae have often lost strokes off the tee (both Kizzie and Gomez did in 2016 and 2018) but have tended to have great weeks with their irons as four of the last five winners here have gained +4-strokes or more on approaches. Target great iron players, players who are trending well with the putter (if possible), and those with experience at both this event and other similar venues.
Sony Open betting discussion and picks
From an odds perspective, here is where the last winner of this event generally went off, from an outright perspective, pre-event for the year of their win:
- 2020 – Cameron Smith +5000
- 2019 – Matt Kuchar +4000
- 2018 – Patton Kizzire +6600
As you can see, the recent trend for this event has been that players from the middle of the pack in the odds have risen up and outperformed their place in the golfing world. Prior to these three winners,we did have a more dominant event favorite like Justin Thomas (2017) take home the trophy, but the year prior we also had a triple-digit longshot in Fabian Gomez. The event trend of late has favoured middle-tier values thus far but there’s more than that to follow.
- Four of the last five winners here all played in Maui the week before their win (Smith last year was the exception)
- All of the last five winners of the Sony Open also had a T6 or better finish somewhere in their prior three starts before breaking through at Waialae.
A focus on recent form then, either from last week or last November, seems like the move here, and course history is also something to consider. Most of the recent winners here over the last decade had played Waialae more than once before, which isn’t shocking as the slower Bermuda greens and tighter setup often require a couple of rounds before players can really sink their teeth. Overall, this has been an event/venue where players coming in with some Fall form can often find a big payday, and players outside the top-10 golfers in odds can rise off and pay off for a big outright win for bettors.
Betting favorites to win the 2021 Sony Open
Webb’s a perfect fit for Waialae Country Club and has finished T4-T3 here the last two seasons and just missed out on a playoff here last year.
His form has dipped a touch the last month or two and he is coming off a Covid diagnosis over Christmas. He’s the deserving favorite but doesn’t appear to be firing on all cylinders right now.
English broke through for his first win on the PGA since 2013 last week at the Tournament of Champions. Since losing his Tour card at the end of the 2018-19 season he’s now accumulated 11 top-10’s over the last year and a half and moved into 17th in the OWGR.
He’s only missed the cut at Waialae once in eight starts and has three top-10’s here. We’ve seen players start with back-to-back wins in Hawaii before (Thomas 2017 and Ells 2003). There’s players under him I like better for outrights this week but he’s playing the best golf of his career.
He slipped off slightly in the final round last week but, overall, put in a nice start to his season with a T7. The three-time PGA winner finished T21 here last season in his first Sony Open appearance and has some familial ties to the region
If forced, I’d probably take Morikawa over English this week as the 2020 PGA Champion is the most talented player in this field.
*Berger was a bet for me at +2000, unfortunately the odds dipped to +1600 after Reed Withdrew so I left him off the main targets. He’s still part of my exposure this week though
Berger is coming off a T10 finish at the TOC last week. The American faltered slightly on Sunday but struck the ball well all tournament, gaining over +6.0 strokes ball striking.
Over five trips to Waialae he’s never missed the cut here and finished inside the top-15 on two occasions. His trips here have been marked by good ball-striking and poor putting but that club turned for him positively in 2020. He’s likely my favorite play here under +1800.
Matsuyama had a terrible TOC, finishing in dead last position. Who knows why this happened but Matsuyama showed no sharpness in his opener losing nearly 10 strokes putting.
We’ve seen players bounce back quickly from poor TOC appearances here but Hideki and his wild putting swings are not for me right now.
Favorite bets (each-ways and outrights)
For more info on types of golf bets available each week, be sure to check out more info here. Each way bets refer to bets that include a bet to win and a bet to place (usually to at least top-5 but sometimes are available up to top-8 or more).
With his T5 last week, the South Korean further cemented himself in my mind as a player on the verge of a monster year. While he had an up and down end to 2020 after leading the elite field at the Tournament of Champions in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green stats there’s little doubt now that Im’s ascendance at the Masters in the Fall was definitely more than just a lucky blip.
Over the last six months or so Im has transformed himself into a more powerful tee to green player–something you could start to see physically at the TOC–and comes in ranked 2nd in this field in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee stats over the last 24-rounds. As for this week, don’t forget that this is a player who has put up big-time positive putting splits over his career on Bermudagrass greens so it feels highly unlikely that we’ll see him lose another -3-strokes on the greens here, as he did last week. While his game feels more expansive now, his first two trips to Waialae produced results of T21 and T16 and the venue compares well with the site of his first, PGA National, a venue where the likes of Ryan Palmer, Russell Henley, and Mark Wilson–all former Sony Open winners–have also found success.
The price on Im has dropped considerably over last week, but considering his form over the last three starts it still feels like there’s some value here in getting him a couple notches above less in-form players like Webb Simpson. He’s the way I want to start cards this week.
It’s hard for me to look away from Ancer at events like the Sony Open as these type of smaller, enclosed courses are where he’s done his best work. The 29-year-old produced two solo runner-up finishes, one at TPC Stadium (American Express) and one at Harbour Town Golf Links (RBC Heritage), two venues with tighter fairways that also feature smaller Bermuda greens. While Ancer is really only truly contending when his underrated tee to green game is firing, this is a player who has started to putt far more consistently over the past year or so as well.
Over the last 50-rounds Ancer ranks 17th in SG: Putting stats and has gained strokes with the flatstick now in 11 of his last 14-starts (where strokes gained were measured). Like Im, Ancer also found himself in contention at Augusta, and while his story ended on a more negative note with a T13 finish, the experience there certainly should carry him to something bigger down the road. Like English last week, this is a player who has seemingly rebuilt himself–from being off Tour, to a top-30 player in the world–and put himself through the fire numerous times now on that PGA, to the point where you have to feel like a win at some point is inevitable.
While he finished last week in just T17 position, he ended the event with a 66 and gained over 3-strokes alone on his approaches in the final round. If the spark he found in Maui carries over here, Waialae presents a suitable venue for him and a field where he’ll likely feel comfortable if he finds himself near the front on Sunday. I don’t mind dipping in here for one more kick at the can.
Johnson started to catch my eye towards the end of last season when he racked up a few good starts. The veteran has now made the cut in 11 of his last 12 PGA starts and he’s doing it the proper way. While he can sometimes be putter reliant, ZJ has now gained strokes on his approaches in six straight starts and comes into this week’s event with some good recent form having finished T6 at the RSM Classic in late November, his last start prior to this week.
While he didn’t play last week in Maui, I wouldn’t hold that against him too much. This was a player, afterall, who played heavily in the Fall and does fit our other major trends of having a recent top-6 finish and some great course history. The winner of this event in 2009, Johnson’s light off the tee, heavy on the irons and putter approach has worked great at Waialae, regardless of the decade, as he finished T6 here as recently as 2017. Without a win since the 2015 Open, he should viewing this veterans track as a great chance to join the likes of Brian Gay, Stuart Cink and Sergio Garcia, fellow 40-year-olds who all grabbed wins in the Fall. I don’t mind adding an each-way here as some carry over from his great end to 2020 seems likely.
Long Shots and Top-10’s
Stanley’s the type of veteran player who we’ve seen thrive at Waialae over the years. The winner of the WMPO in 2012 and the old Quicken Loans event back in 2017, he’s fallen off the radar a bit the last couple years but surfaced with some solid play over the Fall. Stanley’s game is built around great iron play and he gained an eye-popping +8.1 strokes on his approaches at the RSM Classic–where he finished T6–and made the cut in his last three events of 2020.
Considering his record at Waialae includes seven made cuts in eight starts, and two top-15 finishes, his end to 2020 is enough for me to go off here for an each-way at big prices.
Kanaya is a Japanese pro who held the number one spot in the amateur world golf rankings for 55 weeks in a row. The 22-year-old has now won twice over on the Japan Tour with his most recent win coming in November 2020 at the Dunlop International, a prestigious event which always attracts decent fields. He’s already at 126th in the world and would gain more starts on the PGA with a big finish here. I like the talent and the motivation in play here. The odds are plenty big enough to take a gamble on said talent winning out over his lack of experience.
I pretty much outlined why I like this bet above in the favorites section. Im’s a player who looks on the rise and ready to grab a second win early in 2021. Matsuyama had a couple of good moments towards the end of 2020, including a T2 finish in the Fall, but the lack of pop he showed in Maui is concerning for a player who isn’t striking the ball as consistently as he was when he was racking up a win or two every season. If this matchup keeps getting offered in 2021, taking the Im side has to be the long-term play.
Johnson and Kisner have very similar styles of games and fit this week’s course to perfection. When we get such similar styles of players matching up like this I generally tend to stay away from them in matchups, but the recent form prior to the break was pretty heavily in favour of ZJ. Outside of one good week at the RSM, Kiz didn’t show much in the fall and lost multiple strokes OTT and on APP in Maui. Johnson’s consistency should win out here and, realistically, if I like taking him in the outright department over Kisner then I pretty much also have to like the MU I’m getting here.
Matchups and outrights betting preview from Matt Ramos