Sony Open in Hawaii: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis
EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Mull is a former caddie who spent several years walking alongside the world’s best players inside the ropes on the PGA Tour. Throughout the 2019-20 season, he will be filing a weekly fantasy golf picks piece — as well as a gambling picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.
Sunset cocktails at Duke’s, fresh fish for dinner, the best pineapple on planet Earth, perfect temperatures morning, noon and night combined with roughly sixty two hundred other factors make the Sony Open a special week each January on the PGA Tour.
A fixture on the schedule since the mid-1960s, golf fans on the mainland can almost feel the warm gentle breezes drifting through the palm trees at Waialae Country Club while they sit on their couch and gaze out the window at the cold, cruel hand of Old Man Winter.
Who among us hasn’t pictured their ownself lying on the shores of Waikiki, lei around the neck, chilly beverage in hand, sunbathing beauties lolling about as the lazy waves lap onto the sand and tickle the toes?
OK, back to reality. Actually, our reality is a fantasy of its own, aiming to identify the top performers each week.
Waialae, a 7,044-yard, par-70 layout, originally designed by the masterful Seth Raynor, is a throwback on the PGA Tour, like Oakville CC, the old home of the Quad Cities Open or the Bank of Boston Classic at Pleasant Valley CC in Sutton, Mass. It’s filled with doglegs and demands a certain amount of accuracy off the tee, although the value of hitting fairways decreased in recent years because the rough was dry and thin, offering little resistance.
Those conditions could change this year. Rain is expected at some point all four days at Waialae, peaking at a 70 percent chance on Friday. Conditions can also change in Hawaii by the minute – sun out, rain falling, wind howling sometimes all three at the same time – so pay close attention to the updated forecast before setting your lineup. The wind will also be a factor. Gusts will be lighter than last week, more in the 20-to-25 mph range, but crosswinds will demand greater precision from the pros to find the narrow Waialae fairways and small greens.
We’re placing the highest value on iron play (think, proximity to the hole) and putting this week while paying less attention to power. This is one particular week of the season where it’s wise to pay attention to the driving accuracy stats before making a selection as well.
As a friendly reminder, Justin Thomas was the No. 1 pick in this column last week. And he of course prevailed in the Sentry Tournament of Champions, overcoming a 72nd hole fiasco to outlast Patrick Reed and Xander Schauffele in a sudden-death playoff.
Golfer power rankings
25. Chris Kirk – In his return to the PGA Tour, he’s tied for seventh in proximity to the hole this season. Has a fine track record at Waialae, shooting 62 in 2013 en route to a tie for fifth.
24. Zac Blair – Missed the Sony the last two years but posted consecutive top-6 finishes in 2015 and 2016. Mixed results this season, highlighted by T-4 at Safeway.
23. Brian Gay – Nobody has more experience at Waialale, and the precise player has made the cut in 16 of 19 appearances with three top-10 finishes.
22. Brandt Snedeker – If the conditions deteriorate, his strong short game and toughness will be valuable assets. Finished second in 2016 and T-16 last year.
21. Lanto Griffin – Finished T-13 last week at Kapalua and comes off a hot fall that included a win at the Houston Open and seven top 25s to take his first crack at Waialae.
20. Hideki Matsuyama – His track record at the Sony is less than stellar – no top 25s and three missed cuts in six appearances – but he does have two top 3s on Tour this season.
19. Sebastian Munoz – Looking to build off a tie for 10th in his maiden voyage last season after he finished middle-of-the-pack at Kapalua.
18. Brian Stuard – Ranked No. 33 in the FedEx Cup after a busy fall, the veteran grinder is always a reliable play at Waialae, where he has four top 10s in seven starts, including two in a row.
17. Russell Knox – After missing the cut in his first three Sony starts, has figured out how to play the course with a trio of top-15 finishes in the last five years. Good wind player.
16. Chez Reavie – Still seeking his first top-10 in 2019-20, but he’s 62 under the last five years in the Sony Open, tying for third last season, and spends most of his days in the short grass.
15. Brendon Todd – Struggled to a T-29 at Kapalua last week but should return to form on a course that requires a similar skill set as Mayakoba, where he won in the fall. He’s second in driving accuracy.
14. Marc Leishman – Was in poor form at the Presidents Cup or he’d be ranked higher. Has three top 10s in 10 Sony starts, though, including a T-3 in 2017.
13. Collin Morikawa – Making his first appearance at Waialae, he has all the ingredients to build on a T-7 last week. In particular, top 15 in strokes gained: approach the green.
12. Charles Howell III – The career money leader at the Sony despite never winning the title, he’s finished top eight two of the last three years and made the cut in all 18 starts.
11. JT. Poston – Dusted off the cobwebs with a tie for 11th last week and is one of the best mid-range putters on the Tour. Has made the cut in both Sony appearances.
10. Hudson Swafford – He loves Oahu. The former Georgia star is 59 under in 22 career rounds at Waialae and tied for third last year.
9. Brian Harman – He’s top 30 in proximity to the hole and strokes gained: putting this season and has a fine record at Waialae, tying for fourth in 2018.
8. Joaquin Niemann – Faded on the weekend at the Sentry TOC, but still finished tied for fifth. Short game has been his only weakness (126th strokes gained) but is still T-13 in strokes gained: total. Making Sony debut.
7. Kevin Kisner – The southern contingent typically fares well at Waialae and Kisner should be sharp after a T-14 at Kapalua last week. He has two top 10s in last five years at Sony.
6. Sungjae Im – Tied for 16th in debut last year and let’s face it, he’s good at every aspect of golf, including bogey avoidance, iron play and putting.
5. Corey Conners – Top 20 on Tour off the tee and approaching the green, he tied for third here last year and has made the cut in both starts.
4. Justin Thomas – He shot 27 under to pull the Hawaii double in 2017 and has finished top 20 at Waialae in four of five starts. Proved he has all the shots required to handle breezy conditions.
3. Webb Simpson – Making his 2020 debut, the former Wake Forest star skipped last year’s Sony but has two top 10s here. He also finds fairways, is 14th in strokes gained: putting and leads the Tour in bogey avoidance.
2. Matt Kuchar – Not only is he playing great and the defending champion, but Kuchar is third on Tour in fairways and 85 under in six Sony starts since 2011 with five top 10s.
1. Patrick Reed – Made his first Sony start last year and tied for 13th. Nobody in the world is putting better (45 one-putts last week) and he seems to feed off of the swirling animosity.