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Sony Open preview


The PGA Tour is back again this week, for it’s 2nd event of 2014, the first with a full field of players. It was good to see some of the players in action at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but it is even better to see a full field, where everyone will be looking for a good start, thus setting a good tone for the year.

We stay in Hawaii this week, as we head to the Sony Open, a tournament that has attracted some big names this year. From last week’s Tournament of Champions we have several of the players making the short journey, and a few of them head the betting here. The favourite for this event is World No.2 Adam Scott (8/1), who will be looking to cut into the deficit between him and Tiger Woods at the top of the world rankings. Behind him is last week’s winner Zach Johnson (11/1), who is a previous winner here, and will come in with a whole lot of confidence. Propping those two up are Matt Kuchar (14/1), Jordan Spieth (16/1) and Jason Dufner (22/1), and they make up what looks like a very strong top 5 in the betting.

Despite the big names making an appearance this week, plenty others will be ready to contend here in a Honolulu, just like last year’s champion Russell Henley did, when he won the event on his very first PGA Tour start. Henley is the first player in their 20’s to win this event, since Paul Stankowski, who won in 1997, so Honolulu seems a happy stomping ground for the more experienced pros.

Another interesting fact is that, Ernie Els is the only person to do the Hawaii double, since the Tournament of Champions started in Kapalua 15 years ago, and that was back in 2003, so over 10 years ago. This may put a degree of doubt in people’s mind about whether Zach Johnson goes back-to-back this week or not. In addition to that, 9 of the last 15 winners of the Sony Open, have done so after playing the Tournament of Champions a week previous, so it wouldn’t hurt to look at players who looked in good shape last week.

Waialae Country Club is a 7,044 yards, par 70 course, which has played host to this event, ever since it’s debut in 1965. The course itself, being in Hawaii, will be exposed to to seaside conditions and therefore the wind could get up, and force players to change their shot styles. Finding the fairway off the tee will be key, and how you convert from there is what will be the decisive factor. With small, tricky Bermuda greens to deal with, players approach shots will have to be spot on in order to give themselves a chance of holing those all important putts. In order to win last year, Russell Henley had to rank 1st in both Scoring Average (65.266) and Total Birdies (26) and also ranked 5th in Greens in Regulation, hitting 60 of 72 (83.33%). Once he had done all that he obviously had to warm up the putter, to keep players such as, runner-up Tim Clark, and T3 place finishers Scott Langley and Charles Howell III.

Scott Langley, apart from Russell Henley was the surprise package in last year’s edition of the Sony Open, and he will no doubt be looking to perform well here again this week. Not surprising were the three other players making up the top 5, 2nd placed Tim Clark, T3 place Charles Howell III, and 5th placed Matt Kuchar.

In Clark’s last four outings, he has finished 2-2-25-12, which shows how much he likes the place, and will be keen to add to his good memories of this course again in 2014.

Howell III’s record is even more impressive however, as he has finished in the top-5 seven times in 12 starts, finishing 2nd twice, 3rd twice, 4th twice and 5th once, all very good apart from one thing, he has failed to win. This tournament epitomises Howell’s career as he has made over $26 million in career earnings, but has won on the PGA Tour just twice, something very hard to believe. He has started the 2014 season in typical fashion, racking up  three top-10s, in five starts so far, and will no doubt challenge for another one here at what must be one of, if not his favourite course.

Despite making the point that only one player in their 20’s has won here since 1997, it is hard to see it taking over 16 years for tha to happen again, and I can see there being some changes at this event, in terms of how this event is won in the future. Henley’s win last year will give all the new graduates a lot of confidence  going into, for some, their first career starts and also the score he shot was a record low. His 72-hole score of 256 has been bettered just twice on tour, once by Tommy Armour III who shot 254 at the Valero Texas Open and Steve Stricker who shot 255 at the 2009 Bob Hope Classic. Players will be looking at the way Henley picked apart this course, and seeing how they can shoot such a low score en-route to what they will hope to be, their win come Sunday.

Although you will have to shoot low to contend here, the winning score of -24 last year was obscene, and a feat that will be hard to repeat, and looking at the other winning score since  2009, it is a score that might not be necessary to get the win this time around. The winning scores between 2009-2012 were, -15, -15, -16 and -13, so between -15 and -24 is where players will probably have to aim for in order to pick up the W this week. With that in mind, you need to find players, who you know can make birdies. It is no good playing perfect tee shots, and great approach shots, if you cannot make the putt, as several players before and after of you would have, and you will of already lost ground. The idea here is to put it close and convert when given a realistic opportunity.

With this in mind, and a few other factors, here are my picks for the 2014 Sony Open.

Harris English 28/1 (SpreadEx) 25/1 (StanJames) 1.5pts e/w: Harris English is rapidly becoming one of my favourite players on Tour, and that is because I think he has everything required to get the win, on any given week. This does of course depend on whether it all clicks when it needs to, but he has the right mentality, and without a doubt the athletic ability to play any golf course put in front of him.

English has had two looks at Waialae Country Club, and he dramatically improved 2nd time around, which is a positive sign for us this week. On his course debut, English finished a lowly 67th, but that was in his rookie year, and he has come on leaps and bounds since then, as he is now a two-time winner. His visit in 2013 was a lot more rewarding as English finished in the top-1o, in 9th place, a finish he will once again look to better this time around.

Distance off the tee is not a problem for him, but accuracy can sometimes be, and he will want to keep that part of his game in check this week, along with his putting. So far in this young 2014 season, English is yet to stand out with the putter, currently lying 128th in Strokes Gained- Putting, however he finished 14th in said category in 2013, and that is a better reflection on him. If he can get back to last season’s form around the greens, English can add to the win he has already picked up this season (OHL Classic) and I am happy to back him in doing just that. The potential was always there for him, and ever since winning the FedEx St.Jude Classic last year, he had constantly looked primed for another victory, and that is what happened.

After finishing 11th last week at the Tournament of Champions, in what was his first tournament with his new equipment, he looks as though he is ready to go well once again, and really make 2014 a big year for him in his career. He switched to Callaway in the off-season, something that was announced just before the Tournament of Champions last week, and it did not seem to set it back, so it is therefore not a concern for me.

Key stats going in English’ favour this week are, his ability to hit Greens in Regulation (currently ranked T14) and the amount of birdies he makes (T3 in Total Birdies in 2013), and as aforementioned, if he can warm the flat stick up, he will, for me be a big threat to the rest of the field.

Brian Stuard 66/1 (Boylesports, BetVictor, Coral, SpreadEx) 1pt e/w: A lot of people may be surprised to see the inclusion of Brian Stuard in this week’s preview, and I must admit it took me some time to get used to the fact that I have picked him, but the more I look into it, the happier I am that I have.

Stuard is yet to win on Tour, and in 2013 he made his return to the PGA Tour, after a one-year spell he had back in 2010.  In 2o10, he managed to make just 13 of 28 cuts, and made it into the top-10 just once, but that performance is one of interest. When finishing T2 at the Mayakoba Golf Classic back in 2010, Stuard showed the first sign that possibly low scoring events are what he is suited to, a conclusion I have now come to after another full season in 2013.

If you look at the events that he finished inside the top-10 at last season, all the events were low scoring, and he shot scores ranging between -9 and -21 in these good performances. His best performance of the 2013 season was his T4 at the Puerto Rico Open, where he shot -18, his next best, the Humana Challenge, where he tied for 5th, shooting -21 and the other example was his T6 at the Greenbrier Classic, where he shot -9. Apart from those three events, Stuard finished inside the top-10 one more time, and that was at this very event, the Sony Open, when he finished T5, 12 months ago. Admittedly Stuard’s -16 was very much belittled by Henley’s winning score of -24, but he finished the weekend with a pair of 65s, after opening, 66-68 and doing that on only his second look at this course was very impressive. He did play here in 2010, when he opened and closed his week with rounds of 66, but his Friday 77, Saturday 70 were enough to drop him out of contention.

This could be third time lucky for Stuard, who obviously feels comfortable, not just with this course, but the pace of the scoring, and that is why I am willing to take a chance on him at 66/1. On top of the good finishes for Stuard in 2013 that I mentioned, he has started his 2014 season of steadily, finishing T15 at the Shriners Hospitals before finishing well at one more key event, this one being the  the icing on the cake. As aforementioned, Harris English won the OHL Classic, but Stuard was behind him in 2nd place and it would good to see these two do battle once again atop the leaderboard come Sunday, and this once again proves that Stuard likes this type of event. Despite this 2nd place finish coming in November of 2013, it is his most recent tournament, and his last memory, so it could serve him well when he returns to Hawaii for his third attempt at the Sony Open.

Chesson Hadley 150/1 (General) 0.5pt e/w: Hadley, like Russell Henley 12 months ago, will be looking for a fast start to his PGA Tour career, and he seems a fair price to do just that this week.

Unlike Henley, this is not Hadley’s first start on the PGA Tour, he has already played three times in this 2014 season, missing two cuts and finishing T72, those performances either side of his promising finish at the Shriners Hospitals event, where he finished T5, shooting -16.

Hadley looked impressive at the Shriners Hospitals tournament, and showed why many are tipping him to have a big rookie season on the PGA Tour, expectations he will be hoping to live up to. The Georgia Tech product qualified for this year’s PGA Tour through his play on the Web.com Tour last season, where he picked up two wins, including the Web.com Tour Championship. The first of his wins came at the Rex Hospital Open, where he won with a score of -19, and this caught my eye when looking into his chances for this week.

After winning an event, with a -19 score, you tend to think a player can shoot low, and Hadley backed that up by ranking 5th in Total Birdies, 8th in Birdie Average and also 9th in Scoring Average (69.61) all on the Web.com last year. Now I know that it is a very different tour, but that is how Henley did it, and the Web.com tour is proving a great way to prepare these young golfers for life on the big tours.

This is, admittedly a long shot, as until we see more of him, it is hard to tell how this guy is going to find his feet on tour, but I am hoping he finds them very quickly, here in Hawaii. If it is a mentor Hadley is looking for, he should look no further than Matt Kuchar and Stewart Cink, both of whom have multiple tour wins, and are also both products of the same Georgia Tech system Hadley came through.

Total Points staked on the PGA Tour this week: 6

Total Points staked this week (inc European Tour): 14

Profit/Loss for 2014: N/A

So here we are, the first PGA Tour event of 2014, and it is nice to finally have a huge field of players to pick from, as you can find some good value, even at the head of the betting. Zach Johnson for me was extremely difficult to leave out, even at 11/1 as I really do think the way he is playing that he can make it three wins on the bounce. I have decided in the end to leave him out, as after his comeback win last week it will be a real challenge to get right back in the mix, amidst a birdie fest, and that is what it should be here. His price of 11/1 really isn’t something to be put off by, considering the way he’s playing, but as you could make a case for most of the top-5 in the betting, I think it’s wise to look elsewhere in the hope of a surprise winner, as it has been on many occasion here at Waialae Country Club. Here’s to a profitable 2014!

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