The First Tee – Sony Open

Adam Daly
By Adam Daly January 6, 2020 21:13

The First Tee – Sony Open

This Week

The Tour is staying in Hawaii for the first “real” (full-field, 36-hole cut) event of 2020, the Sony Open. Seven of the past eight Sony winners finished T21 or better at the Tournament of Champions the week prior (credit: most of golf twitter), so that’s something to consider when looking for winners.

The Course

The Sony Open takes place at Waiale Country Club in Honolulu, which is a par-70 course that’s officially listed at 7044 yards. This is another easy course – since 2013, the winning score ranged between -17 and -24 – and the cut will most likely come in the -2 to -4 range; the birdie-or-better percentage here last year was 21.45%. Weather conditions can obviously be a factor in that as this is an ocean-side course, so as always, check windfinder prior to lock.

There are only two par-5s this week which means focusing on par-4 scoring is more important, although missing out on birdies or eagles at the par-5s is an absolute killer especially given that they’re short (501 and 551 yards) and easy (-0.720 and -0.514); last year saw a combined 48 eagles on those two holes alone. Seven of the 12 par-4s play below 450 yards, and the par-3s are all reasonable lengths (between 176 and 204).

For golfers that played last week at Kapalua, Waialae will feel pretty claustrophobic off the tee, as the fairways here are just 34-yards across on average at the 300-yard mark – a far cry from the 65-yard average at Kapalua. Last year, only 56% of fairways were hit, and the difference in proximity on approach shots between shots from the fairway (34’8”) and shots from the rough (47’4”) is so pronounced that it’s imperative to hit the fairway. There are also out of bounds areas and some fairway bunkers to be concerned about, as well as loosely-planted palm trees.

Strong play off the tee matters more here than at a lot of other courses – it’s a tough course to recover second shots on – so that should be highlighted a bit more than usual. (From last year’s article: the median rank for SG: OTT for top-10 finishers between 2012-2017 was 21st.) Naturally-longer hitters will of course have an advantage this week, as they’ll be able to club down to try and keep it in the fairway. There are lots of doglegs from right to left here, so hitting a cut or just slamming driver over the trees are the best options, but the latter isn’t an option for a good chunk of the field.

Approach shots will typically come in the 125-150-yard range, and as mentioned are hopefully coming from the fairway. Shots will be hit into average-sized Bermuda greens with a ton of undulation, and they’re reasonably firm – probably comparable to last week’s greens, given that the greens at Kapalua were newly installed – which means it’s fairly tough to position the ball.

Putting here is about average (25th last year in putting average), with three-putts hit rarely and birdie putts converted at a 29.8% clip. If the green was missed, scrambling from the sand or from the fringe is no big deal, but the greenside rough gets very thick and historically causes a ton of problems; only around 45% of scrambles from the rough manage to save par.

Comparable courses/events:

Kapalua (Tournament of Champions) – There’s obviously a ton of leaderboard overlap (as mentioned above), which could be down to the fact that both courses have similar grasses, greens and weather. The difference in fairway size is a big one, but both events are high-scoring and golfers that succeed at Kapalua tend to succeed at Waialae. As mentioned last week, Patton Kizzire won the Sony in ’18 and finished T8 at Kapalua, for an example of a non-elite performing well at both tracks.

Sea Island (Seaside) (RSM Classic) – Sea Island is a course that’s open to the elements and plays very easy if the weather stays calm – it was actually a touch easier than Waialae last year – and is also a par-70 in the 7000-yard range, with Bermuda greens. The fairways at Sea Island are wider than Waialae, though.


The Strokes Gained stats to focus on in order (not including Tee to Green):

  • Approach
  • Off the Tee
  • Putting
  • Around the Green

Counting stats to focus on in order:

  • Par-4 Birdie or Better %
  • Driving Accuracy
  • Approach 125-150 Yards
  • Greens in Regulation %
  • Putting Inside 10’

Top-Tier Golfers

Abraham Ancer ($9000): Ancer doesn’t fit the “played at Kapalua last week” mold, but by most statistical measures he seems like he’s a perfect fit for this course; he finished T29 here last year (although he missed the cut his first year), and enters the week after some time off post-President’s Cup.

His statistical merits:

  • 10th in SG: Off the Tee / 10th in Driving Accuracy %
  • 23rd in Par-4 BoB% / T8 in Par-4 Scoring
  • 3rd in Proximity from 150-175 Yards (he’s shorter than average, so changing the bucket from 125-150) / T24 in Proximity overall

He’s not a long hitter off the tee so he most likely won’t be making many eagles on the longer par-5 this week, but the 501-yard par-5 remains very gettable even for Ancer. The other negatives in his corner are that his putting is inconsistent – he lost 0.65 strokes/rd last year – and his play around the green is a mixed bag, but Ancer fits the prototype of a shorter, accurate golfer with good control of his irons.

Chez Reavie ($8400): Reavie checks a lot of boxes going into this week, as he has good course history here – four top-25s in nine tries which includes a T3 and T8, and only two missed cuts in that time – and is coming off a T27 last week at Kapalua (which isn’t ideal, but at least he played it). Last season, Reavie made 22/29 cuts, and he hasn’t missed a cut since the Shriners.

Last year, Reavie led the tour in Hit Fairway percentage at 76.10%, and ranked 53rd in SG: Off the Tee as his lack of distance held him back in that category. His approach game was very strong though – it helps being consistently in the fairway – as he gained the 13th-most strokes on approach and had the second-best proximity to the hole. He was dominant from 150-175 yards (like Ancer, slide this up since Reavie is so short), which is part of how he was so good on par-4s (eighth in scoring and 30th in BoB%); his overall BoB% was a strong 23.01% (34th) and he was also good on par-3s.

Honourable mention: Justin Thomas ($12000)

Value Golfer (below $8000)

Emiliano Grillo ($7600): The Argentinian has played Waialae three times so far and finished T22, T47, and T33, so he’s got strong course history in his corner; after having a fantastic 2018 (14 top-25s, including eight top-10s), Grillo regressed on the greens and finished 2019 with only five top-25s, but also only missed four cuts. He’s trending up after decent showings at the CJ Cup, Zozo Championship and Mayakoba, and historically Grillo performs much better on Bermuda-grass courses.

In a down year, Grillo still showed signs of life, especially in some key categories this week

  • 26th in Hit Fairway % / 20th in SG: Off the Tee
  • 3rd in SG: Approach / 34th in Greens in Regulation %
  • 32nd in Approaches 125-150 / 7th in Approaches 150-175

Grillo is usually a better player on par-3s and par-4s but last year took a step back thanks to horrendous putting; he lost a whopping 0.633 strokes/rd, connected on only 85.13% of putts inside 10’, and was 4% below average in one-putt %. His tee to green game is worth his price tag even if the putter sucks, but he’s shown previously that he can figure out how to putt, so that’s the hope for this week.


Tyler Duncan ($6800): After winning the RSM Classic – a comp course! – Duncan found his way into the ToC last week, and managed to finish T19 which is another good sign. Duncan was inconsistent on tour last year, with 21 made cuts in 34 events between the PGA and Korn Ferry Tour, but managed five top-25s and has a very reasonable price point. He’s played Waialae twice, missing the cut once and finishing T57 the other time.

Duncan fits the same archetype as everyone else in this week’s article, that of an accurate golfer off the tee (20th in Hit Fairway %) who lacks distance, but has good proximity (35’0”, 39th) and hits a good number of greens in regulation (68.57%, 41st). His putting tends to hold him back, and he only averaged 3.39 birdies/rd last year which hurts, but he’s a more palatable option than those at this price level.

Honourable mention: Zac Blair ($6700), Nate Lashley ($6800)


You can follow me on Twitter @adalyfrey and good luck this week!


Adam Daly
By Adam Daly January 6, 2020 21:13

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