The PGA Tour bids aloha to Hawaii this week as the first full-field event of the year gets underway in Honolulu for the Sony Open. Defending champion Justin Thomas returns to Waialae Country Club to defend his title after posting the lowest 72-hole score in Tour history here last year and will have former Phil Mickelson caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay on his bag for the first time. Thomas is joined by Jordan Spieth, 2017 Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele, and two-time Sony winner Jimmy Walker as headliners. The field includes six of the top-30 players in the OWGR, 20 players who competed last week at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, and a splattering of second-tier veterans and recent Web.com Tour graduates.
Waialae is a markedly different track than The Plantation Course Dustin Johnson summarily dissected last week. Barely tipping 7,000 yards and playing to a par-70, it features only two par-5 holes – the longest, No. 18, is a mere 551 yards. Drastically narrow, tree-lined fairways make it one of the most challenging driving courses on Tour. Ankle-high, clumpy Bermuda rough is tough to navigate, even with a wedge. Eighty-three bunkers and four water hazards are sprinkled throughout this Seth Raynor design. Greens are above-average size approaching 6,500 square feet – making them easy to attack, provided you’re playing from the short grass.
Par 4 Scoring is essential to success at Waialae with 12 par-4 holes. There’s a distinct variation among them that will affect strategy, as five of them are longer than 450 yards, and seven are shorter. The seven sub-450 yard par-4s are uncomplicated and should be birdie holes for everyone in the field. The five longer par-4s, on the other hand, are extremely demanding, and players will do well to just dodge bogeys and tread water. Player’s won’t need to make a ton of birdies on the four par-3s. However, three of them measure between 194-to-204 yards obligating players not to bleed strokes back to the field, as Waialae is a formidable course to play catch-up on.
Originally designed with the famous Road Hole of St. Andrews’ Old Course in mind, the 480-yard, par-4 first hole is among the toughest opening holes anywhere on Tour. Second shots can be dangerous depending on the wind and played with anything from a 3-wood to a 9-iron. A massive, deep bunker protects the shallow green in the front and gets a lot of action.
Finding the short grass off the tee on the 477-yard, par-4 13th hole requires both length and accuracy. A large fairway bunker protects the right side of a sharp dogleg. Drive that cut too much off the corner or fly through fairway will leave approach shots blocked by trees. Precise second shots are needed to hold the green that slopes from back-to-front and is guarded by two large bunkers on the front-left and front-right. Playing as the toughest hole on the course, players will be thankful to merely survive No. 13.
A sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean runs along the entire left side of Waialae’s signature 194-yard, par-3, 17th hole, making it easy to get distracted by its majesty. Prevailing winds blow left-to-right with one large bunker protecting the left side of the putting surface. A series of four, deep, hidden bunkers guard the right. The green slopes downward and to the back, making the middle-to-long iron shots even more demanding. Par is a player’s friend here.
Playing downwind to the green, the 551-yard, par-5 finishing hole is reachable in two for most players in the field. Bunkers pinching both sides of the dogleg, however, make the tee shot very demanding. Players who successfully find the fairway will be rewarded with a clean look into a generously sized green that falls off to the left and is protected by two bunkers on both sides of its entrance. No. 18 will give up its share of birdies for players who are accurate on both the drive and second shot.
Players to Watch
No one in the field is better in Par 4 Scoring than Jordan Spieth, and he’s riding a wave of seven consecutive top-9 finishes worldwide. Jordan finished solo-third here last year and leads the Tour in Greens in Regulation, which seems to make him the man to beat this week. Waialae demands players move their shots both ways and keep control of their trajectories in the wind, and that certainly plays to Spieth’s strengths.
You have to make a lot of mid-range putts to win here, and Spieth is ranked 201st in Strokes Gained: Putting and 209th in Total Putting this season. If Jordan’s putter catches fire this week he’ll make birdies by the bushel and destroy the par-4s and par-5s. I’m not sure Spieth’s tuned up with the flat-stick to lap the field just yet, however, and so I like him to finish between 5th and 10th place.
Birdie makers have the edge at Waialae, and Justin Thomas is tops in Birdie or Better Percentage early on this season. Thomas torched the course to the tune of 27-under par last year and amputated doglegs with sheer power off the tee. JT’s ascent to stardom is undeniable, but he was shaking off some rust last week at the Sentry TOC and missed the cut here in 2016.
Thomas can get a little hot headed at times, and if he’s too eager for another shot at Waialae, the bar he set last year will be a frustration. File this one under the category of you can’t win them all – JT to finish outside the top-25.
Marc Leishman is in a great position to contend for his fourth career Tour victory this week. Leishman grew up playing in the wind and loves flat, firm courses like Waialae. Marc’s made the cut in each of his eight starts here, including two top-10s in his last four appearances.
Leishman’s finished top-7 in five of his last seven worldwide starts and was only one poor round away from contending last week at the Sentry TOC. Marc’s ranked seventh in Birdie or Better Conversion this year, and he’s been putting lights out, ranked 14th in Putting Average. Leishman’s scoring prowess and current form make him dangerous this week. Combined with his familiarity and fondness for Waialae, that also makes him your winner.