Sony Open in Hawaii 2021: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Webb Simpson and caddie Paul Tesori. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Hawaii in January. Weather so nice, it’s a crime. On my journeys to Oahu, as each morning started with a bountiful breakfast, plates of pineapple and such, I would maybe for a minute feel a tinge of regret as I pondered those poor souls on the U.S. East Coast trapped in a blizzard, freezing to the bone.

Then, I’d order another round, gaze out at the sturdy palms and calm Pacific, allowing such thoughts to drift away in the warm breeze as quickly as they’d arrived. Traveling the pro golf tour can be a rugged journey. Best to enjoy the flashes of relaxation when they come.

Waialae Country Club is the center of the professional golf world this week as the first full-field PGA Tour tournament of 2021, the Sony Open, begins Thursday on the par-70, 7,044-yard layout. It’s an old school Seth Raynor design peppered with doglegs and interesting greens that demand precise approach shots. A sharp short game serves a man well as does the ability to play irons from the rough. Waialae’s fairways are the most difficult to find on Tour – 52 percent compared to the Tour average of 62 percent.

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Despite playing from sand and mild rough, the greens in regulation percentage matches the Tour average (65 percent). Players finishing in the top 5 gain the most strokes on approach and on the greens.

Solving this layout demands capitalizing on the only par 5s – No. 9 and No. 18, which annually play at least a half-stroke under par and are the two easiest holes on the course. Slow starters can dig an early hole also as four of the most difficult holes are encountered in holes 1 through 6.

There are 27 players in the Sony field who started their year at Kapalua and although the courses are vastly different in every way – Waialae is flatter, shorter and tighter – I believe having those four tournament rounds behind them is an advantage this week. It’s been roughly a month since the rest of the field has signed a scorecard.

I’m expecting a shootout this week. The forecast is perfect – shocking, right? – calling for temperatures around 80, a gentle breeze and nothing more than a passing shower. Justin Thomas – who is not in the field this week – set the scoring record with a 27-under 253 in 2017, opening the tournament with a 59.

As always, good luck.

Golfer power rankings

25. Adam Scott​ – Has two top 10s in eight Sony trips but making only his second start since 2017. Still, whenever he shows up he generally plays well. Couldn’t find the touch after a slow start last week but has the ability to hit it so pure he can’t help but make some birdies.

24. Russell Knox​ – Saw signs of progress from the accurate, steady Knox at the end of 2020, cracking the top 20 in three of his final four starts. Waialae is in his comfort zone with three top 11s in the last six appearances and only one missed cut.

23. Marc Leishman – ​Despite​ ​a mediocre showing at Kapalua (T-24), I still expect Leishman to rebound on the West Coast. He’s 9-for-9 making the cut at Waialae and finished T-3 in 2019. He’s also 15th on Tour in proximity from 150-175 yards, a popular distance range for approach shots this week.

22. Michael Thompson – ​His tee game killed him last week at Kapalua but he gained 6.8 strokes on approach and 2.2 strokes on the greens. That’s promising for a tournament where he’s played the weekend in four of five starts. Had a pair of top 25s late last fall.

21. Wesley Bryan – ​Among the Tour leaders in proximity to the hole from the rough from 150-200 yards and simply excels on approach from anywhere, gaining strokes in his last six tournaments and ranking 10th in the field in that category over the last 24 rounds. Has a T-32 and missed cut in two Sony starts.

20. Brian Harman – ​Yet another player whose game is built for this golf course. He made 12 of 13 cuts to end last season and recorded four consecutive top 20s at the Sony Open from 2015-18.

19. Tom Hoge​ – He’s made bank at Waialae in the past, claiming third in 2018 and tying for 12th in 2020. Obviously benefiting from the skillful eye of veteran caddie Henry Diana (Charles Howell III). Has made seven of the last nine cuts, including a third at Mayakoba.

18. Emiliano Grillo​ – Ballstriking wizard held the 54-hole lead at Mayakoba to close the fall, wrapping 2020 by making the cut in 10 of his last 11 tournaments. The putter is always the issue but a recent switch to greens guru Derek Uyeda, who also works with Xander Schauffele and other pros was a wise move. Top 25 at Sony the last two years.

17. Talor Gooch – ​A tie for 18th in 2018 is his best finish in three Sony starts but remember he finished in the top five in two of his last four starts in 2020. He’s strong on approach and on the greens but has been a little ragged in short game (114th SG) in last 24 rounds

16. Zach Johnson – ​I won’t be surprised if the two-time major champion snaps a five-plus year drought and wins on the PGA Tour in 2021. He has three top 10s at the Sony since 2014 and in the field is 12th in SG: Approach and third in SG: Putting over the last 24 rounds.

15. Brendon Todd – ​One of the game’s ultimate fairway finders tied for 21st in last year’s Sony and a respectable T-13 at the Sentry TOC on a course that’s not ideal for his game. He’s also first in the field in SG: Short Game and third in SG: Putting over the last 24 rounds on Bermuda greens.

14. Patton Kizzire – ​Backed up his 2018 Sony victory with a T-13 the following year and then his game descended into a dark place. But a solid fall campaign gives hope he’s back on the right track with six consecutive made cuts and two top-11 results. He’s top 15 in the field in SG: Putting and SG: Short Game over the last 50 rounds.

13. Cam Smith – ​The defending champion was Dustin Johnson’s lone legitimate threat on the second nine at Augusta in November. Stumbled to a 72 in the final round at Kapalua to finish T-24 but his fourth consecutive Sony top 25 seems well within reach.

12. Ryan Palmer – ​His late career resurgence continues. Finished fourth at Kapalua, closing with 71. Tied for fourth at the Sony last year, squandering a chance for victory when his second shot on the 72nd hole sailed well right of well, everything.

11. Matthew NeSmith – ​Another player with the tools to improve his standing on the PGA Tour this season. Closed last year strong with three top 20s in four starts and is solid in the 150-175 yard approach range (33rd on Tour). Also has been steady when playing on Bermuda greens.

10. Lanto Griffin – ​Finished T-13 at Sentry TOC to give him three top 15s in his last five starts dating to last fall. Enjoyed the Waikiki Beach breezes last year, landing in a T-7. Putts his best on Bermuda, gaining 0.26 strokes per round and has gained strokes on approach in 12 of last 13 starts.

9. Sungjae Im​ – Would be ranked higher if not for ranking outside the top 140 on the PGA Tour in 2020-21 in SG: Putting and SG: Short Game. Finished T-5 last week at Kapalua in spite of losing 3.2 strokes on the greens. Top 25 in both appearances at Waialae and inside the top 20 in the world ranking and FedEx Cup.

8. Kevin Kisner – ​Played well enough to win at Sea Island, losing in sudden death, and he’s accustomed to cashing checks in Hawaii, recording three top 5s since 2016. Over the last 50 rounds he’s second in the field in SG: Putting and 24th in SG: Approach. Strong combo on this course.

7. Harris English – ​Not many have been more consistent over the last year and the Sentry TOC champion has good vibes on Oahu, finishing top 10 at the Sony every year from 2013 to 2015. He’s second in the FedEx Cup points standings, 17th in the world and beginning to look like a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

6. Russell Henley – ​Over the last 50 rounds, leads the field in SG: Approach, SG: Tee-to-Green and SG: Ballstriking. Also won the 2013 Sony Open and has finished in the top 20 on two other occasions. Seeking fifth top 10 since last year’s PGA Championship.

5. Abraham Ancer –​ The slow and steady rise of Abe Ancer continues. Mediocre results at the Sony (T-38, T-29) but dusted off the cobwebs with a T-17 at Kapalua. He’s top 12 in both SG: Approach and SG: Putting in the last 24 rounds on Bermuda. If he’s locked in, he could lead the field in birdie attempts.

4. Joaquin Niemann – ​Didn’t fare well in his Sony debut last year (T-57) but a closing 64 and runner-up finish at the Sentry TOC confirmed my hunch he’s headed for a career-defining season. Love his partnership with veteran caddie Gary Matthews – it’s produced five top 25s in six outings.

3. Webb Simpson​ – Self-quarantined in the days leading up to the Sentry TOC and looked rusty at Kapalua. His game fits Waialae better, anyway. Simpson finished one shot out of a playoff last year, posting his fifth consecutive top-15 finish at the Sony.

2. Daniel Berger​ – He’s 43 under in five Sony starts, making every cut and finishing in the top 15 twice. Game showed little rust with yet another top 10 at Kapalua and he’s top 10 in the field in SG: Approach and SG: Putting in his last 24 rounds on Bermuda greens. Won at Colonial and there are similarities between the two courses.

1. Collin Morikawa – ​What would you trade for this young pro’s silky swing and future? A pinky toe? A spare dog? Your car? Maybe all three and then some. Cracked the top 10 at Kapalua, his chances to win derailed by a closing 73. Finished T-21 in Sony debut last year.

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