Best bets for PGA Tour's Sony Open

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Going into last weekend, only Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau had more top-10 finishes than did Harris English dating back to the 2019-20 PGA Tour season. For the better part of 16 months, English had been knocking at the door to earn his first PGA Tour victory since November 2013, and he finally walked through that door last weekend by winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
 
English led the field in strokes gained putting (+ 1.71 strokes gained per round) and shot 25 under to win in a playoff at a 33-1 pre-tournament price. He defeated Joaquin Niemann, who posted his best finish since his lone tour win at the Greenbrier in September 2019. Both players are staying on this islands for consecutive weeks as part of the field for the Sony Open in Hawaii.
 
English is the co-second favorite along with Collin Morikawa (T-7 last week) at 14-1, and Niemann is priced at 23-1. Webb Simpson, favored at 10-1, has posted finishes of third in 2020 and fourth in 2018 in his last two appearances in Honolulu. Daniel Berger started 2021 with a top-10 finish last week in Maui and slots in here at 16-1. Sungjae Im (18-1) tied for fifth last weekend and led the field in shots gained tee to green by gaining + 2.38 strokes per round. Hideki Matsuyama (20-1) had a nightmare week on the greens, losing -2.44 strokes per round, and finished last. Defending Sony champion Cameron Smith tied for 24th and goes off at 29-1 this week. 
 
 
The Event
 
The Sony Open in Hawaii has been contested at the Waialae Country Club in Honolulu since the event’s inception in 1965. It was played in mid-autumn for its first five years before being moved up in the calendar to late winter in 1971. The 55-year-old event has had only five multiple champions: Hubert Green, Corey Pavin, Lanny Wadkins, Ernie Els and Jimmy Walker. In 2017, Justin Thomas won this event and set multiple records, including the tournament scoring record of 27-under 253, the course record and tournament low-round record of 59 in Round 1, the 36-hole record of 17-under 123 and the 54-hole record of 22-under 188.
 
The Course
 
Waialae Country Club is a flat bayside track where scoring has gotten lower over the years. It plays as a par-70 of 7,044 yards and was designed in 1927 by Seth Raynor, who also designed the Old White TPC, which hosts the Greenbrier Classic. The course was last restored by Tom Doak in 2017. The layout is all Bermudagrass including the greens, which run a bit slower at 11 on the Stimpmeter. The track has ranked as the easiest (2013, ’16, ’17), second-easiest (’14, ’15) or third-easiest (’19) par-70 on the PGA Tour in recent years. It was more difficult last year, with 30-mph trade winds, and the winning score of 269 was the highest since Vijay Singh’s 269 in 2005. Waialae is very much a second-shot golf course despite the renovations. 
 
Recent History/Winners
 
2020: Cameron Smith (-11/269), 55-1*
2019: Matt Kuchar (-22/258), 40-1
2018: Patton Kizzire (-17/263), 80-1**
2017: Justin Thomas (-27/253), 14-1
2016: Fabian Gomez (-20/260), 100-1***
2015: Jimmy Walker (-23/257), 18-1
2014: Jimmy Walker (-17/263), 40-1
2013: Russell Henley (-24/256), 100-1
2012: Johnson Wagner (-13/267), 125-1
2011: Mark Wilson (-16/264), 80-1
2010: Ryan Palmer (-15/265), 250-1
 
* - playoff win over Brendan Steele
** - playoff win over James Hahn
*** - playoff win over Brandt Snedeker
 
Sony Open Trends, Angles
In seven of the last nine years, having an extra week on the islands has proven an advantage. Seven of the last nine Sony Open champions teed it up the week before at Kapalua.
Year Winner Previous Week Result at Kapalua
2020 Cameron Smith DNP
2019 Matt Kuchar 19th
2018 Patton Kizzire 15th
2017 Justin Thomas 1st
2016 Fabian Gomez 6th
2015 Jimmy Walker 2nd
2014 Jimmy Walker 21st
2013 Russell Henley DNP
2012 Johnson Wagner 9th
Golfers who also played Kapalua last week include Abraham Ancer, Adam Scott, Andrew Landry, Billy Horschel, Brendon Todd, Brian Gay, Cameron Smith, Carlos Ortiz, Collin Morikawa, Daniel Berger, Harris English, Hideki Matsuyama, Hudson Swafford, Jason Kokrak, Joaquin Niemann, Kevin Kisner, Kevin Na, Lanto Griffin, Mackenzie Hughes, Marc Leishman, Michael Thompson, Nick Taylor, Richy Werenski, Robert Streb, Ryan Palmer, Sebastian Munoz, Sergio Garcia, Stewart Cink, Sungjae Im and Webb Simpson.
Course experience also matters here, as 14 of the last 15 Sony Open winners had played in the event before their victories. Russell Henley’s 2013 win was the lone exception. 
From a statistical standpoint, success at the Sony Open has been all about shots gained on approach and shots gained putting:
2020, Cameron Smith (-11). SG Off the Tee: 18th, SG Approach: 53rd, SG Around the Green: 9th, SG Tee to Green: 30th, SG Putting: 1st.
2019, Matt Kuchar (-22). SG Off the Tee: 7th, SG Approach: 7th, SG Around the Green: 29th, SG Tee to Green: 3rd, SG Putting: 3rd.
2018, Patton Kizzire (-17). SG Off the Tee: 67th, SG Approach: 3rd, SG Around the Green: 34th, SG Tee to Green: 20th, SG Putting: 3rd.
2017, Justin Thomas (-27). SG Off the Tee: 1st, SG Approach: 4th, SG Around the Green: 23rd, SG Tee to Green: 1st, SG Putting: 2nd.
2016, Fabian Gomez (-20). SG Off the Tee: 54th, SG Approach: 2nd, SG Around the Green: 14th, SG Tee to Green: 7th, SG Putting: 5th.
The 2020 event was clearly an outlier as it was played in extremely windy conditions. 
 
PGA Tour Season SG: Approach Leaders:
1. Nelson Ledesma (4) + 1.488 strokes/round
2. Russell Henley (7) + 1.169
3. Doug Ghim (12) + 1.010
4. Emiliano Grillo (14) + 0.940
5. Keegan Bradley (15) + 0.939
6. Chez Reavie (18) + 0.906
7. Matthew NeSmith (19) + 0.890
8. Adam Scott (22) + 0.794
9. Mark Anderson (23) + 0.774
10. Sepp Straka (24) + 0.765
Eight of the last 11 winners have also ranked top 10 in their fields for greens in regulation during their winning weeks. 
 
PGA Tour Greens In Regulation Leaders:
1. Matthew NeSmith (1) 78.33%
2. Russell Knox (5) 75.51%
3. Emiliano Grillo (T6) 75.00%
4. Stewart Cink (T6) 75.00%
5. James Hahn (T6) 75.00%
6. Ryan Palmer (T6) 75.00%
7. Russell Henley (17) 73.23%
8. Joaquin Niemann (18) 73.21%
9. Zach Johnson (20) 72.92%
10. Henrik Norlander (21) 72.84%
(Parentheses indicate overall rank on the PGA Tour in the category) 
 
Selections
Sungjae Im 18-1
 
Im started 2021 with a top-5 finish last week at Kapalua. He led the field for shots gained tee to green and ranked sixth for shots gained on approach. 
 
The putter held him back last week, as he ranked 35th in the field of 42. He is usually better on Bermudagrass greens, so last week might be an aberration considering he has averaged over three strokes gained putting in his two starts at Waialae. 
 
Im ended 2020 on very solid form with a tie for second at the Masters for his best finish in a major. He was also a T-14 at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, a respectable finish for a young player who has very little experience in European Tour events. In the middle of that stretch he missed the cut at the RSM Classic, but that was immediately after the Masters so can be excused.
 
Kevin Kisner 32-1
 
He finished in the middle of the pack, tying for 24th last week, but closed with a 5-under 68 for his best round of the tournament. 
 
Kisner is always a good look to back in an event on a short par-70 with Bermudagrass greens. He has three top-5s at Waialae in his last five appearances, including a T-4 last year.
The 2020 calendar year nearly ended with a bang for Kisner as he shot 63 in the final round of the RSM Classic before falling in a playoff to Robert Streb.
 
Lanto Griffin 42-1
 
Griffin finished seventh here last year and started to get it going in the final round at Kapalua last weekend.
He finished T-13 and shot a 6-under 67 in the final round, where he ranked second for strokes gained putting and finished fourth in the category for the event. 
 
Brendon Todd 50-1
 
Todd is one of the straighter hitters on the PGA Tour and ranks second in driving accuracy at 74.23%. But he is not one of the longer hitters, and his putting (fifth for the week, first for the final round) could carry him only so far on a big, wide track like Kapalua, where he tied for 13th.
However, a shorter course with Bermudagrass greens should suit Todd. His three PGA Tour victories have come on setups measuring 7,166, 6,828 and 6,987 yards. Todd ended 2020 with a respectable T-8 in his title defense at Mayakoba.
 
Marc Leishman 66-1
 
Leishman putted poorly at Kapalua and ranked third worst in the field for strokes gained putting at -1.27 strokes per round. But he rated eighth for shots gained on approach and 11th for shots gained tee to green en route to a T-24 finish.
 
He has finished top 10 or better in three of his last seven appearances here. 
 
Branden Grace 140-1
 
Grace has always been solid on coastal courses, as evident from his win at the 2016 RBC Heritage.
 
He missed 12 cuts in 24 worldwide events in 2020, but 10 were after the restart. Like many players, Grace lost momentum during the COVID-19 stoppage, but he did tie for eighth in a good field at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai to end 2020. 
 
Grace has one appearance here, a 13th in 2017.
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