Sony Open in Hawaii 2022: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Kevin Na and caddie Kenny Harms are back at Waialae to defend the Sony Open in Hawaii this week. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Waialae Country Club is a beauty. The Seth Raynor classic would be a gem anywhere. It just happens to be tucked between a highway and an ocean on a cozy corner of Oahu.

The PGA Tour returns to the familiar scene this week for the first full-field, 144-man shootout of the new year: The Sony Open.

Isao Aoki holed a shot from 132 yards on the 18th hole for an eagle. To win by one. My first memory of the tournament, which was sponsored by an airline perhaps in those days of the 80s. I was new to watching golf on TV and figured pros did such things all the time. He knocked it in the hole; I walked outside to practice putting. Isn’t that where he was aiming?

Several years later I competed in a tournament somewhere still seeking my home-hole hole-out. Jack Renner, the man Aoki left stunned and in second place, was the guest speaker. He spoke for half an hour. He did not mention the shot. Neither did I.

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Waialae always looks the same, gorgeous. The sharp doglegs, well-positioned bunkers and subtle greens, the familiar Sunday hole locations. The kinda course where you tee off and just meander around, paying attention to angles and crosswinds, hitting stretches where each shot feels awkward, then, here comes Birdie City! It’s like most great courses … not too difficult for golfers who are in control of their ball.

It’s not a major but it’s a treasure, in my top five on Tour whatever that’s worth to you.

There are 17 of the top 50 players in the world in the field fighting for their share of $7.5 million, which is worth quite a bit. The weather will be perfect, light winds 5-15 mph, just enough to keep the sweat away. Just enjoy the view from the couch. Don’t look out the window and ruin it.

Hitting it close and making putts is always a good formula on the PGA Tour. Distance control – off the tee and into the greens – is an asset here. Playing the two par 5s in seven or eight shots each day is important. The course demands accuracy from 150-175 yards and driver is optional on about half the par 4s, maybe more for the modern brand of bomber. The precise plodders who roll their ball nicely on Bermuda greens and have no trouble shooting multiple mid-60s rounds on shorter courses populate our power rankings this week.

We identified players who have thrived at Waialae in the past. Their names are familiar.

The fairways are less familiar to some. Even the best will miss nearly half of them. The dogleg left 18th is generally hit less than any other, certainly for the week if not for the season. That hole could tell some tales. One in particular.

As always, good luck.

Bargain Bin

  • Harry Higgs, Max McGreevy, Nick Hardy, Hudson Swafford, Jimmy Walker

Golfer power rankings

25. Joel Dahmen – Chipped away the winter rust with four rounds on Maui and now returns to Waialae where he enjoyed an excellent putting week en route to a T-12 in 2020. Precision play from 150-200 yards should create ample opportunities to chase birdies on Oahu.

24. Hideki Matsuyama – New year, same story for the reigning Masters champion. Great irons, bad putts. Gained 3.5 shots on approach at Kapalua; gave back 2.1 on the greens in a T-13. Finished top-20 the last two years at Waialae but you’re gonna want a better return at his price point.

23. Brendan Steele – You’ve probably heard by now: course history carries more weight than usual this week. Steele shimmered on Oahu the last two years, finishing second and fourth in the Sony. He’ll probably be a popular play because he’s proficient on par 4s measuring 400 to 500 yards. There are 10 holes in that range at Waialae.

22. Abraham Ancer – Overruled the model which held Mr. Ancer in much higher regard. Yes, it should be an excellent course fit, however, he’s missed the cut at Waialae two of the last four years with nothing better than T-29. And, he lost shots in every measurable statistic last week at Kapalua.

21. Charles Howell III – He’s a legend on this plot of land 15 minutes from downtown Honolulu. He’s 20-for-20 playing the weekend at Waialae with 10 top 10s and a pair of runner ups. Nobody has made more money here and he closed the fall by playing the weekend in five of his last six starts.

20. Si Woo Kim – There are safer plays, then again, aren’t there always? Finished T-25 in last year’s Sony, his best finish in three appearances. Collects those precious FedEx Cup points on shorter courses, excels from 400-450 yards and leads the field in scoring on 500-550 yard par 5s.

19. Matt Jones – Not sure how anyone responds to a 23 under weekend but we’ll find out Thursday and Friday at Waialae. Gained 6.5 shots Tee-to-Green in an amazing 30-under third place effort at Kapalua and should continue the good vibes on his favorite putting surface. Ride the hot hand for another week. Made the cut here each of the last four years, finishing T-11 in 2021.

18. Denny McCarthy – Was surprised to learn this will be the first appearance at Waialae for the Bermuda master. He lands hot after a fall flurry featuring three consecutive top 15s and four top 20s in six starts. Iron play is improving and has gained strokes Tee-to-Green in the last four measured starts.

17. Billy Horschel – Finished seventh in last year’s Sony in only his third appearance in the tournament since 2013. Made the cut the other two times and his ability on shorter courses (12th in the field) and on Bermuda greens (seventh in SG: Putting) is intriguing. Also has won four tournaments on the surface. Atrocious on approach last week (-8.6 SG, last in the field).

16. Tom Hoge – There’s a lot to like here. He’s second in the field in proximity from 150-175 yards and 18th from 175-200. Finished 12th and third at Waialae the last two years. Thrives on shorter courses. Just needs a little cooperation from the putter (107th in SG: on Bermuda).

15. Stewart Cink – Comfortable course fit (top 20s in ‘19 and ‘21), good form (gained 2.7 shots Tee-to-Green last week) and enjoying the autumn of his PGA Tour career with son Reagan on the bag.

14. Cameron Davis – Not fully overreacting to his T-10 at the Sentry TOC but more encouraged by his ranking of 10th on shorter courses and a positive trend in approach, gaining shots in four of the last five starts. Feels like he’s poised to take a step forward in 2022.

13. Harris English – Has cracked the top 25 only once in six tournaments since the WGC – FedEx St. Jude title slipped away on that Sunday in August. This would be a good place to regain form. Finished in the top 5 two of the last three years at Waialae and ranks top 10 in the field in short game.

12. Maverick McNealy – This one’s for the risk takers. Making his debut at Waialae which is traditionally unkind to first-time guests. Still, he’s top 10 in par-5 scoring and 400-450-yard par-4 scoring over the last 50 rounds. Also, a short course artist. And looking to build on top 25s in his last three starts in the fall.

11. Branden Grace – A longshot that could raise the trophy on Sunday evening as the sun sets over the Pacific. Dangerous from 175-200 yards and dialed in with the wedges. Finished T-13 here in 2017 and runner up at the Wyndham last August.

10. Christiaan Bezuidenhout – Another Waialae rookie but his short game, Bermuda putting and prowess from 125-175 yards should create a pleasant introduction. T-15 at Mayakoba was his best result in three fall starts.

9. Russell Henley – Many fantasy players will put the 2013 champion on their roster this week. Thrives on the comparable courses like Sedgefield and Harbour Town, hits enviable approach shots (first in proximity from 125-150 yards) and rolls his best on Bermuda (21st in SG: Putting on the surface).

8. Cameron Smith – Well, he won here in 2020, defeating Brendan Steele in a playoff, and he won last week, shooting a sweet little 34 under to out-duel the No. 1 player in the world. Combined with his recent consistent excellence, he’s the oddsmakers’ choice for an Aloha double. I’m not going to argue against it. Not after watching all those putts drop.

7. Sungjae Im – After inexplicably struggling to putt on Bermuda greens for eight months, Im rediscovered the touch on Kapalua, gaining 2.1 shots to complement solid tee-to-green play and finish T-8. Leads the field in scoring on 450-500-yard par 4s and is second in Good Drives Gained when the field struggles to find fairways.

6. Kevin Kisner – Full Disclaimer: Bumped him up three notches late Monday night as his Georgia Bulldogs were beginning to celebrate their first football championship in four decades. Has two top 5s in the last four years at Waialae and gained 2.7 shots on approach last week in an eighth-place finish.

5. Corey Conners – Last top 10 was in April at Harbour Town. Has a third and a 12th at the Sony. Drives it straight, scores on shorter courses and ranks 32nd in the field in putting on Bermuda. Capitalizing on the two par 5s each day is critical to success for Conners and the field.

4. Kevin Na – He arrives at Waialae this year in better form than a year ago when he secured the victory. Finished T-13 at the Sentry TOC, gaining 2.5 shots on approach, on a course where he’s fighting uphill to offset his distance deficit on every par 4 and par 5. Can get as hot as Cameron Smith with the putter.

3. Marc Leishman – Staying close to the top of the board, Leishman checks the requisite boxes to contend here again. Last week’s top 10 was his third in five starts in the 2021-22 season and continued a stretch of accurate iron shots. Landed in the top four in two of the last three Sony Opens.

2. Talor Gooch – Finished 15th in the Sentry TOC despite losing 2.3 shots on the greens. Felt like he was building toward that first victory for a while, wouldn’t be surprised to see a second come quickly. The putter (79th SG on Bermuda) is the only question mark. The ballstriking numbers are solid through the bag.

1. Webb Simpson – Last season was a disappointing one for Simpson. Beset by injury and illness he failed to make it to East Lake for the first time since 2016. But the season finale at Sea Island was encouraging. Simpson gained 9.8 shots on approach, a career best. He’s gained shots Tee-to-Green in eight consecutive tournaments. Oh, and he’s finished in the top 5 in 2018, ’19 and ’21, gaining more than 17 shots on the greens in that span. This year he closes the deal.

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