Pat Mayo provides a preview and makes his early 2021 Sony Open Picks in his first look and research for the PGA TOUR event.
2021 Sony Open: Field
Field: 144 Players
Cut: Top 65 and Ties
Lineup Lock: Thursday, January 14
Defending Champ: Cameron Smith
The Tournament of Champions was a nice appetizer — limited field, no cut, mostly top-end players — but now we’re into the real PGA TOUR grind. The 2021 Sony Open sports a full field of 144 players, the Top 65 and ties rule persists as the cut line rule and we finally get the variable of missed cuts to throw a wrench into our DraftKings lineups. No more six-of-sixes for EVERYBODY!!!!
While traditionally a stomping ground for Korn Ferry grads, ToC non-elite holdovers and the PGA TOUR mid-card, the 2021 Sony Open sports its strongest field in over a decade. No, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and most of the ultra elites won’t be island skipping to Waialae CC, but 32 of the 42 participants at Kapalua will be in the field at the Sony Open. So, for everyone but those 32 players, this will be their 2021 debut. Former champs Russell Henley and Zach Johnson lead the list of 2021 debutants, along with Emiliano Grillo, Brian Harman, Si WOOO Kim, Erik van Rooyen, Charles Howell III, Matt Kuchar, Charley Hoffman, Keegan Bradley, Jim Furyk, J.T. Poston, Chris Kirk, Chez Reavie, Brandan Steele, Russell Knox, Branden Grace and Doug Ghim, aka The GHIM REAPER.
The wild card in the field is Takumi Kanaya. The 22-year Japanese up-and-comer ascended to No. 1 in the world amateur rankings before turning pro and has already notched two victories on the Japanese Tour. Up to No. 120 in the world rankings, despite a missed cut at the US Open and a paltry T41 at the Zozo stateside, Kanaya had four straight top-seven finishes (with one of those wins) to close the year in Japan.
2021 Sony Open: Key Stats
Strokes Gained: Approach
Par 4s Gained
Good Drives Gained
Mayo’s Key Stats powered by FantasyNational.com
2021 Sony Open: Course
Course: Waialae CC
2021 Sony Open: Past Winners
2020: Cameron Smith -11
2019: Matt Kuchar -22
2018: Patton Kizzire -17
2017: Justin Thomas -27
2016: Fabian Gomez -20
2015: Jimmy Walker -23
2021 Sony Open: Notes
For DraftKings contests, if the group is going off spilt tees (half the groups start on hole No. 1 and half on hole No. 10), targeting the players starting on hole No. 1 should yield a slight advantage. A birdie streak on holes 8, 9 and 10 is more likely, per birdie/bogey averages, than 17, 18 and 1 or 18, 1 and 2 with holes No. 17 and No. 1 ranking as the sixth and fourth-most difficult holes historically at this venue.
Before Cameron Smith’s 2020 triumph, the previous six winners at Waialae had all played in the Tournament of Champions the week before. Random chance? Potentially, but it is worth noting Smith, like most of the victors in the first three months of 2020, competed in the Presidents Cup that December in Australia.
Smith’s -11 winning score was the highest since Vijay Singh also won in 2005 at -11. A coastal course, Waialae experienced massive wind gusts and rain during the first few rounds in 2020. Those winds were a massive outlier, however. Extreme wind that tends to be commonplace at Kapalua rarely emerges at Waialae to that extent.
Waialae CC is the fourth longest-serving host venue. The Honolulu course has been played every year since 1965, except for 1970 when there was no event. That trails only Augusta National (1934), Colonial CC (1946) and Pebble Beach (1947).
Ernie Els (2003) and Justin Thomas (2017) are the only two players to complete the Hawaii Slam in the same year and Harris English will have an opportunity to join that club this season.
Charles Howell III (35.2), Webb Simpson (32.2), Kevin Kisner (30.2), Chez Reavie (28.9) and Marc Leishman (28.2) have the most Strokes Gained: Total of all players in the field over the past five years at the Sony Open.
Waialae typically ends up being among the courses with the most difficult fairways to hit, just a shade over 52% to the TOUR average of 61%. Last year threw this off a bit; the wet conditions kept a larger percentage of balls in the short grass. Missing the fairway isn’t detrimental to overall success, though. The average drive travels almost five and a half yards farther than the average TOUR course, so players are more concerned with setting up the proper angles than landing in the fairway. Despite almost half the approaches coming from the rough, the field hits more GIRs at the Sony than an average event, posts a higher scrambling percentage and an almost identical average proximity from the pin on GIRs. So, the stat “Good Drives Gained” will outweigh “Strokes Gained: Off The Tee” this week.
Strokes Gained: Around the Greens means less and less the more you rise on the leaderboard. Since Waialae is one of the most generous courses for GIR (67%), the more the field utilized their short game, the fewer birdies they’re likely to make. Not a great plan when the winning score will generally breach into the sub -20 range.
Russell Henley (2013) was the last player to make the Sony Open his first career win. Before that, it was Jerry Kelly in 2002. Henley is also the last player to win in his first appearance at the course, as well. Since he won the team event, technically, Smith’s win last year wasn’t his first PGA TOUR victory. Just his solo victory. Rising oil prices were all the rage in 1979, also the same year where we’d find the next player who won in his debut — Bruce Lietzke.
In players with at least three starts over the past five years, Howell, Webb, Kisner, Grillo, Hudson Swafford, Stewart Cink, Scott Piercy, Cameron Smith, Daniel Berger, Matt Jones, Andrew Putnam, Tim Wilkinson, William McGirt and Brian Stuard have made the cut in every appearance.
Per Fantasy National, over the past 24 rounds, Webb, Berger, Collin Morikawa, Sungjae Im and Ryan Palmer have gained the most Total Strokes on Par 70 courses playing less than 7,200 yards.
For correlation courses, the obvious is El Camaleon, host of the Mayaboka Classic. In 2018 and 2019, Matt Kuchar and Patton Kizzire won both events in succession. After that, The Honda Classic (PGA National), Harbour Town (The Heritage) and Sedgefield CC (Wyndham Championship) have seen similar names pop up on leaderboards over the years — most of which are some combination of or all of short, Par 70, Bermuda and coastal courses. Combining these five courses together, over the past 36 rounds, Webb, Kuchar, English, Poston, Billy Horschel and Sergio Garcia top the list in SG: Total. Sergio, Webb, Kuchar, Luke List, CT Pan and Si WOOOO Kim lead in SG: T2G.
2021 Sony Picks
When you think of short Bermuda tracks, Webb Simpson should immediately come to mind, but after that, it should be Sungjae. Still just 22 years old, Im broke through at the uber difficult PGA National a year ago and may pick up another novelty check in Hawaii this week. Yes, he finished in a tie for fifth at Kapalua, but it really should have been better. No player in the field was better tee-to-green or ball striking. He just couldn’t putt, which is atypical for Im on Bermuda greens. Fortunately, in two starts at the Sony Open, he’s averaging +3.1 SG: Putting per start.
Is Leishman broke? Poor guy couldn’t buy a putt at Kapalua. Maybe it was confusion over the AUD to USD exchange or the inflated pricing of putts due to the isolation hike in Hawaii. Who can say? Finishing middle of the pack at T25 at the Tournament of Champions, the Aussie lost 5.1 strokes on the greens, third-worst in the field. The irons? Quality. Leishman was eighth-most among all players at +3.8, sandwiched between Dustin Johnson and Daniel Berger. Flip the putter, and he should get back into contention at a course where he’s finished in the positives on the putting surface in seven of the past eight years. I feel like Leishman is going to cost me a lot of money this year. Just a hunch.
Hopefully the extended break and calendar flip didn’t stunt Ghim’s progression. Since the new season began, he’s failed to advance to the weekend just once in six starts and posted four Top 25s along the way. And he’s yet to do it with a sterling putting performance. No big losses, no big gains. Catch a hot putting week to compliment Ghim’s Top 10 field ranking in approach, opportunities gained and good drives over the past 12 rounds to end last year and there will be no need to fear the Reaper.
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Pat Mayo is an award-winning video host and producer of long and short-form content, and the host of The Pat Mayo Experience daily talk show. (Subscribe for video or audio). Mayo (@ThePME) won the 2020 Fantasy Sports Writing Association Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year and Golf Writer of the Year awards, along with the Fantasy Sports Trade Association Best Sports Betting Analyst award, and was a finalist for four FSWA Awards in 2020 (Best Podcast, Best Video, Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year). His 21 FSWA nominations lead all writers this decade and are third-most all-time. Mayo has been recognized across multiple sports (Football, Baseball & Golf), mediums (Video, Writing & Podcasting), genre (Humor), and game formats (Daily Fantasy and Traditions Season Long). Beyond sports, Mayo covers everything from entertainment to pop culture to politics. If you have a fantasy question, general inquiry or snarky comment, ship it to Mayo at [email protected] and the best will be addressed on the show.
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