Pat Mayo and Geoff Fienberg preview the course and run through the odds while making their 2023 Sony Open Picks.
2023 Sony Open: Field
Field: 144 Players
Cut: Top 65 and Ties
Lineup Lock: Thursday, January 12
Defending Champ: Hideki Matsuyama
If the Tournament of Champions was any indication, we’re in for a brutal year of DraftKings golf. The Tournament of Champions is essentially a highly lucrative preseason event. Great weather, easy course, everyone gets paid. Fun times. A free six-of-six lineup for everyone. NOPE. Xander Schauffele got hurt just prior to the event and pulled out after a round. If you can’t get a six-of-six lineup when everyone makes the cut, how are your chances now that the cut is back at the 2023 Sony Open? This week it’s 144 players and the top 65 and ties make the cut; back to business.
The field is headlined by most of the holdovers from Kapalua: Jordan Spieth, Tom Kim, Billy Horschel, Sungjae Im, Adam Scott, Corey Conners, Brian Harman, Tom Hoge, Russell Henley and defending champ Hideki Matsuyama headline the field. It’s important to know who has already warmed up in the Hawaiian sun as eight of the past nine Sony Open champs have played the week previous.
Joining them will be the best of the rest. The PGA TOUR mid-carders, if you will — Kurt Kitayama, Harris English, Webb Simpson, Emiliano Grillo, Keith Mitchell, Gary Woodland, Mav McNealy, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Si WOOOO Kim, Cam Davis, Chris Kirk and fall series Top 5 machine Taylor Montgomery (Flea Market). They’ll all be making their 2023 debuts.
As is customary for the Sony Open, players from the Japanese Tour get invitations into the field. Kazuki Higa has the best recent form of the group. After four wins in 2022, including the Dunlop Phoenix in November, Higa has risen to No. 68 in the world golf rankings. It’s difficult seeing his path to victory with such an upgrade in field strength, however, he acquitted himself respectably on other tours in 2022. He finished T36 at the ZOZO on the PGA TOUR and a T10 at the BMW International in Europe. After Higa, Yuto Katsuragawa, Kaito Onishi, Taiga Semikawa, Keita Nakajima and 20-year-old Kohei Okada are all in the field. Despite being just inside the Top 300 in the world rankings, Semikawa has won three of his past seven starts in Asia. Why is he just inside the Top 300 with all those wins? Well, he was an amateur then. The world’s No. 1 amateur. Now a professional, this is the first of likely many chances we’ll get to see the 21-year-old on the PGA TOUR.
If you’re targeting players who played in last week’s event, don’t worry if they played poorly. Hideki couldn’t putt at Kapalua last year and then he had the best putting week of his career at the Sony. And Kevin Na was an abject disaster at the 2021 ToC …
Hawaii native Blaze Akana is also in the field. He’s currently the 2723rd-ranked amateur in the world. He also may or may not be an American Gladiator from 1989.
2023 Sony Open: Key Stats
Strokes Gained: Approach
Par 4s Gained
Good Drives Gained
Mayo’s Key Stats powered by FantasyNational.com
2023 Sony Open: Course
Course: Waialae CC
2023 Sony Open: Past Winners
2022: Hideki Matsuyama -23
2021: Kevin Na -21
2020: Cameron Smith -11
2019: Matt Kuchar -22
2018: Patton Kizzire -17
2017: Justin Thomas -27
2016: Fabian Gomez -20
2015: Jimmy Walker -23
2023 Sony Open: Notes
Waialae CC is the fourth longest-serving host venue on TOUR. The Honolulu course has been played every year since 1965, except for 1970 when there was no event. That trails only Augusta National (1934), Colonial CC (1946) and Pebble Beach (1947).
Ernie Els (2003) and Justin Thomas (2017) are the only two players to complete the Hawaii Slam in the same year and Smith will have an opportunity to join that club this season.
As mentioned, eight of the past nine Sony Open winners competed the prior week at the Tournament of Champions. The one outlier: Cameron Smith in 2020. Now there are two ways to think about this. First, having four real rounds of competition after a long break is a distinct advantage. Second, the best players in the field are the ones who played in the Tournament of Champions so it’s only logical that they would win. It’s probably a combination of the two, TBH. And, the year Smith won, was when the Presidents Cup was held in December, so his competitive break wasn’t the typical layoff.
Smith’s -11 winning score was the highest since Vijay Singh won in 2005 also at -11. A coastal course, Waialae experienced massive wind gusts and rain during the first few rounds in 2020. Those winds were a massive outlier, however. Extreme wind that tends to be commonplace at Kapalua rarely emerges at Waialae to that extent. Generally, conditions are benign, and the winning score will be well past -20.
Tracking the historic Strokes Gained data, Around the Green means less and less the more you rise on the leaderboard. That’s true at many courses, but it’s far more pronounced at Waialae CC. Since Waialae is one of the most generous courses for GIR (66%), the more the field utilized their short game, the fewer birdies they’re likely to make. Not great in a birdie fest unless all those chips are going in.
Adding to that, Waialae typically ends up being among the courses with the most difficult fairways to hit at just a shade over 53% compared to the TOUR average of 62%. Don’t worry, however, as the USGA isn’t involved in rough control this week. The field is more concerned with setting up the proper angles than landing in the fairway. Despite almost half the approaches coming from the rough, that GIR percentage is well above the average event, and the Sony sports a higher scrambling percentage and an almost identical average proximity from the pin on GIRs. So, the Good Drives Gained stat will outweigh Strokes Gained: Off The Tee this week:
Good Drives Gained (Good Drives are drives where the player either hits the fairway off the tee OR the player misses the fairway but still hits the green or fringe in regulation.)
For correlation courses, the obvious is El Camaleon, host of the Mayaboka Classic. In 2018 and 2019, Patton Kizzire and Matt Kuchar won both events in succession. It’s helpful the fields tend to have similar strength as well. There’s a lot of crossover between them, outside of the very high end. If you’re wondering what happened in 2022 at El Camaleon, wonder no longer. You’ll notice, Sony Open 2022 Runner Up Russell Henely took home the title.
There’s also an angle of the short courses on TOUR to play this week. The Sony Open has shown a direct correlation with Colonial, Sedgefield, Mayakoba and Harbour Town, both in course spec and field strength. Here are the SG: T2G leaders from those five courses in the field this week over their past 24 rounds. (PGA National has shared a lot of success as well. But the amount of water on that course makes the numbers wildly variant so it is not included.)
This won’t be a huge advantage, but in single-round, DraftKings Showdown contests, any edge is worth exploiting. The groups will alternate going off spilt tees (half the groups start on hole No. 1 and half on hole No. 10) the first two rounds, and targeting the players starting on hole No. 1 should yield a slight advantage. A birdie streak on holes 8, 9 and 10 is more likely, per birdie/bogey averages, than 17, 18 and 1 or 18, 1 and 2 with holes No. 1 and No. 2 ranking as the third- and fourth-most difficult holes at this venue.
2023 Sony Open Picks
Tom Kim ($10,500)
The 20-year-old already has two wins and Waialae leans directly into his strengths. Exactly like it did at the Wyndham. His subpar distance won’t kill him at a short track like the Sony, so that allows the main part of his game to take over. Kim’s gained on his approaches in nine straight starts, including being near the tops in the field at the Tournament of Champions. He struggled with the flat stick at Kapalua, which is nothing new. However, Kim’s putter seems to vacillate between flaming hot and frigid. Catch him on a heater week and he could run away with the event.
Corey Conners ($9,600)
Conners is an awful putter, this is known. However, for reasons unknown, he’s never lost strokes to the field in four starts at the Sony Open. In fact, two of his three best flat stick starts in his career have come at this site. He’s gained off the tee and on approach in six straight, including over the weekend in Maui. If there’s a time for it all to come together, this may be it.
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Pat Mayo is an award-winning video host and producer of long and short-form content, and the host of The Pat Mayo Experience daily talk show. (Subscribe for video or audio). Mayo (@ThePME) won the 2020 Fantasy Sports Writing Association Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year and Golf Writer of the Year awards, along with the Fantasy Sports Trade Association Best Sports Betting Analyst award, and was a finalist for four FSWA Awards in 2020 (Best Podcast, Best Video, Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year). His 21 FSWA nominations lead all writers this decade and are third-most all-time. Mayo has been recognized across multiple sports (Football, Baseball & Golf), mediums (Video, Writing & Podcasting), genre (Humor), and game formats (Daily Fantasy and Traditions Season Long). Beyond sports, Mayo covers everything from entertainment to pop culture to politics. If you have a fantasy question, general inquiry or snarky comment, ship it to Mayo at ThePatMayoExperience@gmail.com and the best will be addressed on the show.
I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is ThePME) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and do not constitute a representation that any particular strategy will guarantee success. All customers should use their own skill and judgment in building lineups. I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.