So you fancy John Huh?

  • By: Ben Coley
  • Last Updated: January 9 2013, 12:41 GMT

John Huh could buck the trends and win this week's Sony Open in Hawaii according to our expert Ben Coley.

  • John Huh could really take to this week's layout
  • Charles Howell III is a course specialist 
  • Ben Curtis should relish the ball-striking test 
  • First-alternate Rod Pampling is a big player if he gets in 
  • Colt Knost is a fascinating outsider on this course 

Let's get one thing clear right from the start: this year's Sony Open in Hawaii looks a real puzzle.

In the past, despite obvious differences between this week's venue - Waialae Country Club - and Kapalua, those to have had teed up in both have held a distinct advantage.

Nine of the last 14 champions had prepared at Kapalua, and straight-talking Geoff Ogilvy summed it up by stating that regardless of what type of course you play on, match-practice is always a plus.

Given that each year roughly 30 players represent those with a prep versus over 100 who make their seasonal debut in this event, it's a very strong trend that suggests players who've blown away the cobwebs in the HTOC will hold a distinct advantage once more.

However, we all know that this year's Tournament of Champions was rather different. High winds meant a stunted, 54-hole event that ended a day late, and only time will tell whether those to have played will be helped or hindered by having done so.

It's a bit of a guessing game and although I personally wouldn't expect those who played last week to be at a disadvantage, it's impossible to be certain at this time.

What we can be certain of is the type of player who tends to fare well here. At little beyond 7,000 yards and with just two short par-fives, this is a track which gives no real advantage to longer hitters and if you want to win the title you pretty much have to rank among the top 10 for greens in regulation during the week.

Trawl through interview archives and you'll find players falling over themselves to comment on how tough these fairways are to hit, but how much of an advantage you have if you can hit them, so look for steady, straight players to populate the leaderboard.

As for the bermuda greens they're small and grainy, although past champion Mark Wilson said the grain isn't nearly as significant as at Kapalua. Speaking of Wilson, he is one of 10 winners on the trot who were both 30-plus and had a previous PGA Tour title before taking this one - experience has been key.

Don't be surprised by a surprise, so to speak, nor should it come as a shock to see someone with no previous course form all of a sudden crack this layout - Wilson's win was sandwiched between missed cuts and defending champion Johnson Wagner had missed his previous three, too.

Now we know what we're looking for, who gets the vote? Well, the obvious starting point is Charles Howell III and although far from an original selection, I think the price on offer is very fair indeed.

For those unfamiliar, Howell is considered one of the Tour's great underachievers. One of the best tee-to-green players around when on-song, two wins in over 10 years on Tour simply don't do his talent justice.

Those figures make any bet at 25/1 seem hard to justify, but if there's one place you can take that price about CH3 it's here at Waialae. Howell has played the event 11 times and has placed on six occasions, consistently ranking among the best ball-strikers in the process.

He puts his record here down to a strong work ethic during the off-season rather than any great affinity for the layout, but whatever the case it's a confirmed trend established over multiple starts and it makes the place part of this wager at the very least look good value.

What makes me think that he might just get over the line this time is a determination to take his game to the next level and address that problem I've mentioned - a lack of wins.

Howell hired Gary Gilchrist - who helped Yani Tseng ascend to the top of women's golf - as his coach last year and the new man in charge says the aim is to see his player contend in majors, as he's certainly good enough. In addition, Howell is packing his early-season schedule to try and secure a spot at Augusta - his place of birth - and he really does mean business.

Indeed, perhaps that's the secret to his success here. While many players bring the wife and kids to Hawaii, Howell's response when asked about his plans for the week a couple of years ago left no room for doubt.

He said: "No, I'm here by myself. The family stayed back at home, so I'm just here to work. I'm not here to play."

Howell closed out 2012 with three top 15 finishes in the Fall Series before playing what partner Rory Sabbatini described as "fantastic" golf in the Franklin Templeton Shootout and if he can bring that to his favourite stamping ground then he could get a win that he craves desperately.

The other I like at the head of the market is Zach Johnson. I noted that Mark Wilson likened this place to Hilton Head and Chad Campbell said it was very similar to Colonial - Johnson was second and first respectively at those venues last year.

In addition, there seems a very strong tie between this track and Sawgrass - indeed, Steve Marino reckons Waialae has a Florida feel to it - and Johnson was also second in the Players' Championship last term.

A past champion here too, there's real substance to his prospects but I've not been all that impressed with him over the last six months or so and at 20/1 he can be overlooked.

Instead, I'm going to put up second-season Tour pro John Huh as my next best.

For all that links with Sawgrass, Colonial and Hilton Head can be found, the most obvious recent tie is that between our venue this week and Riviera Maya-Cancun, host venue for the Mayakoba Classic.

The last two Sony Open champions had both won there in the not-so-distant past, and as a short, coastal layout with relatively small greens and a premium on accuracy, the link looks tight.

So, how about the winner of last year's Mayakoba Classic at 50/1? Yes please.

After all, if ball-striking is the name of the game then confident Huh has to be on the list anyway. In his debut Tour season, Huh ranked 11th in driving accuracy, 23rd in total driving and 53rd in greens hit, which combined made him the Tour's 30th-best ball-striker.

Combine that with a good set of putting stats and it's clear that his win in the Mayakoba - on just his fifth Tour start - was no fluke whatsoever.

Some will see his 56th-placed finish here last season as a negative, but that was his first PGA Tour start and a second-round 65 shows he can score at the course.

Significantly, he went on to finish eighth in his next event so the fact that he's had a prep in the Tournament of Champions could set him up perfectly for what looks a perfect fit on paper.

Huh was also fifth at Colonial last season and 23rd at Sawgrass, so at 50/1 I think he's been underrated in the betting providing a switch in manufacturer doesn't take time to bed in.

At this stage the battle for a spot on my final list got very competitive. Wilson is left out begrudgingly as conditions were very different when he won here two years ago, while Sabbatini would be of more interest were his record fresh not great.

Instead, chance Rod Pampling at a three-figure price.

The Australian signed off last season in fine style, finishing 10th and second back home, but in truth he'll have been disappointed. Having reeled in Daniel Popovic in the Australian PGA, the vastly more experienced Pampling let victory slip through his fingers and make no mistake, it will have hurt.

However, onwards and upwards is very much his mentality and he could add his name to the list of Australians who've used December form back home as a springboard for an early-season PGA Tour success.

"I just tried to seal it, it just didn't work out that way. As much as it hurts after being I guess one (stroke) ahead, it's still nice to build on that and definitely get some confidence for next year," Pampling said after the aforementioned disappointment.

"Obviously you come down to win in Australia, it's a great spot to get the confidence back. Obviously the fields aren't quite as deep, but it is a great spot to get that confidence back that you need to perform in the States.

"The last few years I have just been kind of aiming at the hole and hoping they kind of go that way. But last tour school I actually hit the ball quite well and even at the (Australian) Open with all of that wind, I think it was the best ball-striking day on Sunday that I had for a long, long time and then this week with so many good shots.

"I've been working very hard on getting it there and I've been hitting a lot of really good putts all year but just nothing has been going in, it was actually nice to see them going in the hole today."

Those words suggest he's ready to crack on in 2013 and as a veteran who has a PGA Tour win on a tough Florida layout on his CV, there's plenty to like about his profile.

What I really like, though, is his Colonial record. Pampling has finished 10th, second, 12th, third and sixth in his last six starts there and with the form book backing up Chad Campbell's comparison, that could be a key pointer to his chances this week.

It's also worth noting that Pampling's best PGA Tour performance last season came in January and although at the time of writing he's first alternate, we'll get our money back if he doesn't make the field and 125/1 is a fine price.

Next, Ben Curtis looks overpriced after blowing away the cobwebs at Kapalua.

The 2003 Open Champion's return to the winners' circle was one of the stories of 2012, and if he can produce the same sort of numbers he'll be winning again this year.

That victory at the Oaks Course in Texas saw him chased home by Mayakoba champions Huh and Brian Gay, along with Matt Every who led this tournament last year before crumbling late on.

This may sound like a tenuous link but it really isn't - it's evidence that a short, technical course is absolutely ideal for Curtis and that's reflected in his stats.

Curtis ranked fifth for driving accuracy, 12th for greens in regulation and 12th for strokes gained putting last season, while he also figured among the top 15 in both par-three and par-four performance, good pointers on a par 70.

Given the link to the Players' Championship established earlier, his second-placed effort there is another positive and so is his shot shape, with several players having commented that hitting a slight fade here is an advantage.

Curtis does have a poor record here but he's only played the tournament three times and only one of the last 10 champions has never missed a cut at the course.

The key is to be in control of your ball and there were enough positives signs in that regard earlier this week to suggest that anything 66/1 or bigger is a good price.

Finally, I am going to squeeze Colt Knost into the staking plan, with those doubts around whether Pampling will get a run.

A former US Amateur winner on a tight, technical course, Knost can't compete in most events where his lack of distance puts too much strain on other aspects of his game.

Short layouts that put pressure on a player's ability to hit it straight are where he makes his money, and it's therefore no surprise to see that he placed at both Hilton Head and in the Mayakoba last season.

He also opened with a bogey-free 66 here to show that Waialae suits and he's worth a small bet at a massive price in both the first-round leader and outright markets.


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