The first full-field event of the new year will tee off this week at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
While last week's Tournament of Champions took place on the sprawling Plantation Course at Kapalua, this week's venue is far more cozy. Waialae Country Club on the island of Oahu is short and tight by PGA Tour standards, often drawing comparisons to other claustrophobic layouts like Colonial, Harbour Town and Mayakoba.
Aussie Cameron Smith won last year's event in a playoff, ending a six-year run that saw every winner tee it up in Maui the week before. Plenty of players have made the short trip from Maui, with 29 of the 42-man Sentry field sticking around for this week's event including PGA champion Collin Morikawa, last week's winner Harris English and betting favorite Webb Simpson.
While all three could easily contend (and win) this week, I'm looking in another direction at a pair of former Sony winners who could follow in Smith's footsteps by winning this event despite watching last week from home:
To Win (odds via PointsBet Sportsbook)
Russell Henley (+3000): When last we heard from Henley, he was cobbling together top-5 finishes in the fall and quickly climbing up power rankings in the eyes of oddsmakers and pundits alike. This price seems more his speed as he returns to the course where he won eight years ago in his first-ever start as a PGA Tour member, firing three rounds of 63. He hasn't cracked the top 10 since but, like last week's winner, finished off a winless but wildly successful 2020 campaign. Waialae puts an emphasis on strong approach play, and Henley is picking up +1.6 shots on the field each round over his last 50 played just with his iron play alone. He's a streaky player but has already shown he can get hot on these particular greens.
Matt Kuchar (+5000): It was just two years ago that Kuchar won this event, but he's seemingly dropped off the map while going almost a year without a top-10 finish (T-2 at Genesis in February). Now age 42, Kuchar is starting to show some wear and tear but still has what it takes to conquer a course like Waialae. While he missed the cut last year as defending champ, that ended a run of six straight top-13 finishes in this event which included four top-5 results. You could make a similar argument at a similar price for Charles Howell III, but I like that Kuchar is a more established winner (and has won here before). At 50/1 I'm willing to look past his lack of recent form and take my chances with a proven veteran who thrives here.
Top-10 Finish (odds via PointsBet)
Ryan Palmer (+320): Palmer is one of the decorated contingent making their second straight start, as he contended deep into the weekend at Kapalua before finishing fourth. While he won a recent team event alongside Jon Rahm, you actually have to go back to the 2010 Sony for his most recent individual win. Clearly the veteran is playing well of late, having done enough to qualify for East Lake without a win (and thereby making the Sentry field). He was T-4 at this event a year ago and showed last week that there's little offseason rust to shed. While he would add his name to the growing list of players who have broken lengthy victory droughts this season, a top-10 result at better than 3/1 has some value.
Zach Johnson (+400): If you think you're noticing a pattern, you are. Johnson is another grizzled vet whose Sony success includes a win here back in 2009. He hasn't lifted a trophy since The Open at St. Andrews in 2015, but he closed out last year with some resurgent form that included a T-8 finish at the U.S. Open among three top-10s in his final eight starts. Johnson tied for sixth at Sea Island in his most recent start, and his Waialae record includes three top-10s in a four-year span from 2014-17. There's little doubt that after a couple lean years he is in the process of returning to that form, especially on courses like this that especially suit his style of play.
Head-to-Head Matchups (odds via PointsBet)
Last week I backed Matsuyama in Maui. Last week I was wrong. The Japanese star was out of sorts at Kapalua, tying for last among the limited field while failing to break par in either of the first two rounds. Kisner didn't exactly light it up, finishing T-24, but his is the stronger track record at this event with three top-5s since 2016 including a T-4 finish last year. Matsuyama has had a few more struggles here, and even a T-12 finish a year ago that marked his first top-25 came in spite of an opening-round 74.
This feels like an opportunity to sell high on Niemann, who fired a final-round 64 to get into a playoff Sunday at Kapalua. The Chilean nearly came out of nowhere to snag the trophy from English, but it's a far different task this week on a course where he was T-57 last year in his debut. Ancer (T-17) didn't light it up last week, but he's the more consistent option and did close with a 7-under 66 of his own and has been in the 60s in eight of 10 career rounds at Waialae.
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