Ollie Noonan returns from the offseason renergised and hungry to search for some golf winners for Matchbook Insights readers. First up for 2019 he previews the Sony Open from Hawaii.
After the always muted ‘fall event’ portion of its schedule, and the processional Tournament of Champions last week, the PGA Tour gets properly back underway with the tradition full field opener, the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club in Hawaii. 144 players go to post, with the market headed by 2017 champ Justin Thomas and last year’s breakout star Bryson DeChambeau, both of whom make the short trip over from Maui, along with a host of other winners from 2018.
Despite sounding like a Geordie greeting, Waialae is a peach of a course that really tests players’ ability to think their way around a track, requiring players to shape shots both ways and to battle the winds that traditionally blow in off the Pacific Ocean. It is a relatively short par 70 at just 7044 yards, but that only serves to bring more players into play as the tight fairways require longer players to club down in order to find greater accuracy off the tee. Approach play is really the key to scoring well here as leaving yourself in the right areas on the large greens gives the best opportunities for making birdies, whilst the par 5s are distinctly gettable with over 50 eagles being recorded on the longer holes in last year’s edition.
Winner’s in the last 10 years have been a mixed bag of longer (Justin Thomas, Jimmy Walker) and shorter players (Mark Wilson, Johnson Wagner), experienced (KJ Choi) and inexperienced (Russell Henley), players who’d played in Maui the week before (Patton Kizzire, Thomas) and those who hadn’t (Henley, Ryan Palmer) but theyall shared the same trait in that they putted very well on the Bermudagrass greens.
Whilst it’s very difficult to predict who is going to putt above their usual expectation week to week, we can definitely look at past performance on Bermudagrass as a pointer to who could be expected to go well here this week.
Coming off a fast-finishing 3rd place at Kapalua, Justin Thomas is hard to dismiss as tournament favourite, especially given his win here back in 2017 and his general winning percentage over the past three season, but we haven’t had a favourite oblige here in nearly 15 years and the average price of the winners in the past 5 years has been 50.0 so I’m happy to leave him alone.
DeChambeau is discounted for similar reasons, and whilst Gary Woodland will fancy his chances of adding a 4th career PGA Tour win, at a venue where he’s had three previous top 7 finishes, I’d be reticent at getting involved at odds at low at 16.0.
Spieth To Bounce Back From Terrible 2018
Instead, I will start my staking plan with golf’s fallen golden child, Jordan Spieth. There is no doubting the fact that 2018 was Spieth’s annus horribilis, but you don’t win three majors by the age of 23 without being an all-world talent.
That he recorded only two top-five finishes all season, with both in consecutive events back in April, will have hurt him greatly and it is clear that he wants to get back to winning ways in 2019, given he committed to this event despite not featuring in Maui.
The formerly formidable ‘flatstick’ was the catalyst for all of Spieth’s problem’s last year but a return to Bermudagrass should suit as he’s made no secret of the fact he loves these surfaces, and he’s also previously referenced how well Waialae sets up for him, and it’s similarities to other tracks like Colonial, where he’s previously been victorious.
Despite a down year in 2018, Spieth still ranked 32nd in strokes gained approach, and 14th in par 5 scoring so it really isn’t a stretch to see him bettering his 3rd place finish here in 2017. At odds of 20.0, he ranks a must bet in a field which appears somewhat top heavy, just based on class alone.
A case could certainly be made for an inform Marc Leishman though 20.0 for a man who still doesn’t win enough. If he does go in, expect a big year, but we’ll let him slide for him. Stanley, Grillo and Kuchar are also interesting options whose games really should correlate but all look priced about right for me currently but would be ones to bring on side if they are in and around the first page of the leaderboard come Sunday.
It’s Sam’s Time
Rather than take any more at the head of the market, I will instead go value hunting further down the list and there are three plays who particularly take my eye. Anyone who has followed me on Twitter for the past year will know I am a big Sam Burns fan, and I believe he has what it takes to really reach the top echelons of the game. The Louisiana State standout had an impressive first season as a professional, bettering Tiger Woods’ round when paired with him in contention at the Honda Classic back in February, before going on to secure a victory a month later on the Web.com Tour, eventually earning his card by virtue of finishing 2nd on its money list.
He led that Tour in Putting Average, finished 2nd in par 5 scoring and finished third in the all-round ranking so he really has no holes in his game, and whilst he is still very much at the beginning of his career he currently outperforms his usual expected strokes gained-putting mark by an additional 1.3 strokes per round on Bermudagrass greens. Russell Henley came off the Web.com Tour to win wire-to-wire back in 2013 and Burns has the talent to do the same this time around.
A Couple Of Speculative Long Shots
Finally, I will settle for small stakes investments at very large prices on two players who are very similar in profile – Harris English and Hudson Swafford. The former University of Georgia teammates are both previous winners on the PGA Tour, of whom big things were expected but who did not quite trend on after promising starts to their careers. Both have had struggles with the big stick of late, but a return to a venue where each has multiple previous top 10s (English 9th, 4th, 3rd from 2013-2015 and Swafford 8th and 9th in 2014 and 2016) could be the fillip they need to get their career’s back on track.
English missed 14 of 25 cuts in the 2018 section of last season but rebounded to make five straight cuts in the fall portion of the schedule, suggesting he may have got something figured out with his swing. He’ll take encouragement from turning a positive strokes gained total figure (0.5) for the fall period and it’s a positive that he’ll be forced to club down, resulting in his biggest weakness being taken out of play. At odds in excess of 251.0, it won’t take much for us to find out whether he still retains the talent that saw him inside the world’s top 50 less than five years ago.
Swafford had a fairly non-descript season in 2018, making over 75% of his cuts but never once troubling the scorers. However, it later emerged that he had injured muscles in his back early in the season, and that had been plaguing him all year. He’s now reportedly injury free and on a run of 9 straight made cuts, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can rebound to his 2017 form when he picked up his maiden win at the CareerBuilder Challenge – another January event for those into their circadian rhythms. He’s talked previously about how much he loves Bermudagrass greens, having grown up playing them and given his positive previous course history plus the fact he’s perennially amongst the game’s best par 5 scorers, I think he’s worth a small bet at a huge price.
- Jordan Spieth – 3 points @ 20.0 (lay 6 points at 4.0)
- Sam Burns – 1 point @ 151.0 (lay 6 points @ 11.0)
- Harris English – 0.5 point @ 251.0 (lay 6 points @ 11.0)
- Hudson Swafford – 0.5 point @ 251.0 (lay 6 points @ 11.0)
Check out the Sony Open Tournament Matchups here