Golf expert Ben Coley is backing Marc Leishman to do as he's done before and follow Cameron Smith into the winners' enclosure.
3pts e.w. Hideki Matsuyama at 20/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
2pts e.w. Marc Leishman at 22/1 (Sky Bet, William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Branden Grace at 125/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Kyoung-hoon Lee at 125/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Stephan Jaeger at 175/1 (Sky Bet, William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
With little else to go on in terms of recent form, it's no wonder the market has reacted strongly to a record-breaking Tournament of Champions as Cameron Smith became the latest world-class golfer to complete a Hawaii double. To fend off the world number one in the way he did must go down as a career-best from the mulleted Australian and there's no urge to undermine a brilliant all-round display which saw him add a string to his bow with a field-leading performance off the tee.
It's easy to argue that as a former Sony Open winner he must now be the man to beat at Waialae, a course which contrasts starkly with Kapalua. Last week we had elevation changes, wide fairways and huge greens – this week we've a flat, narrow, old-fashioned course with smaller targets, yet Smith has proven adaptable and is clear favourite as he bids to emulate Ernie Els and Justin Thomas and win these events back-to-back.
Perhaps for similar reasons, it can be tempting to view the Hawaii swing through a trends lens. As well as the fact we've been a month or so without full-field PGA Tour events which would ordinarily serve as the starting point, both the Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open are established and have permanent homes. Like the Masters, this means we can look at years' worth of leaderboards and draw some pretty firm conclusions. Like the Masters, one of them is that debutants are a no-go: just replace Fuzzy Zoeller there with Russell Henley here.
The other strong correlation is for those who played last week to dominate this. As of now the record states that since the Tournament of Champions went to Kapalua, 16 of the 23 subsequent Sony Opens have been won by a player who took part in both, and the run is currently six from seven. Logic is two-fold: these are by definition very good players, because they won last year, and now they've had a valuable pipe-opener on a neighbouring island. Even allowing for the change in course dynamics, that has to be of some benefit to most of them.
In mitigation, Chris Kirk last year and Brendan Steele in 2020 could and arguably should have undermined this trend and returning to Henley, the only debutant to win here since the first edition in 1965, he serves another purpose: in 2021, as a 33/1 shot he was the shortest-priced player who hadn't shaken off the rust on Maui. This year he's in the same situation, the rascal, although second-favourite Webb Simpson and 25/1 Corey Conners are also batting for the same side. Nevertheless, the lighter-in-number Tournament of Champions squad are stronger in quality.
Most of this seems factored in to me but while HIDEKI MATSUYAMA wasn't necessarily the first name on my list, I thought it odd that he was put in as a 22/1 chance, which is the price he was quoted at last week.
That price is now 18s generally and 20/1 in places after the withdrawal of Bryson DeChambeau, but that's fine, because it further weakens the field versus a stronger Tournament of Champions which featured eight of the world's top 10 players. There's only one of them here, and that's newly-minted Smith, who ranks 10th.
Matsuyama being twice the price of the Aussie might just look like a misjudgement come Sunday and I thought he was quite an eye-catcher last week, shooting 69-65 over the first two rounds on his first start for more than two months. Come the end of the week he'd slipped to 13th, hamstrung by his putter, but there were plenty of positives given he said he'd played precisely three times since winning the ZOZO Championship in October.
It could be a big year for the Japanese, buoyed by his coming-of-age Masters triumph and that victory waltz in Japan. He's not quite back to where he ought to be in the rankings but the platform is there and, with his approach play firing straight out of the gate, if he can tidy up in the areas Smith bettered him then he can go really well.
His record here shows that he took a while to get used to Waialae but 12th in 2020 and 19th place last year saw him rank second and first respectively in strokes-gained tee-to-green. It's the sort of tree-lined challenge he enjoys, like Augusta and Narashino, while the fact so many winners here have demonstrated razor-sharp skills around the greens is a definite positive. As he showed in the Masters, Matsuyama is brilliant with wedge in hand.
Success will depend on the putter and there's no denying the fact these greens have so far foxed him. In fact some will see rankings of 67th, 52nd, 62nd and 65th over his last four visits as reason enough to draw a thick line through his name. At 10/1 that would've been my inclination, but the gap between him and Smith looks far too big and, colour me predictable, taking a chance with the putter is something I'm generally willing to do.
Smith's win will no doubt have boosted the Aussies in this field, and Matt Jones was right at the top of my list before the weekend. However, he's been quickly cottoned onto and is now shorter than I'd like, whereas there looks to remain some upside in course specialist MARC LEISHMAN, an eminently classier type.
Leishman has made all 12 cuts here and hit the frame for us last year at a bigger price, shooting 66-65-65-65 to share fourth but playing the final hole of the tournament in the belief a birdie might get him a play-off. It was a performance built on quality iron play and he'd demonstrated that in 2020, finishing down the field because of a stone-cold putter having led the field in strokes-gained approach.
His tee-to-green stats over these last two renewals have therefore been right up there with ball-striking behemoth Matsuyama, underlining how much he loves Waialae, and he's sure to benefit from a pipe-opener at Kapalua. Leishman has four top-10s in 12 here, but his record when it's his second start of the year rather than his first reads three top-10s in four, making it one-in-eight without.
This record of improvement from first to second start extends all the way back to his rookie season. In 13 years of PGA Tour membership, Leishman has a win and four top-fives on his second start of the year, and has only finished outside the top 30 twice. That win came in 2020 at Torrey Pines, another favourite stop where he'd regularly contended, and it also came on his first start since watching Smith win the Sony.
These two won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans together last year, and have long been close friends and teammates. When Leishman won the Farmers he said that seeing Smith win 'gave me a bit of determination' and he was on hand to celebrate with him on Sunday. Those first few weeks of 2020 in fact saw Smith, Leishman and Adam Scott win on the PGA Tour, Min Woo Lee and Lucas Herbert win on the European Tour, and Stephanie Kyriacou win on the LET. I for one wouldn't be surprised were we to witness another spate of Aussie winners over the coming weeks and months.
As far as Leishman goes, he started to play really well towards the end of last year and, slimmed down on his return to action, showed good signs with his ball-striking at Kapalua. That had been the missing piece of the puzzle and, now returned to one of his most beloved haunts, everything looks set for a big week.
Sungjae Im and Simpson look obvious candidates too but the field soon begins to thin out, and it remains to be seen whether Talor Gooch or Seamus Power can translate their improvement here. My view is that there's not a lot to be fearful of and only Henley makes serious appeal of those at 50/1 and shorter, though his failure to kick on at the RSM Classic late last year was consistent with one of the most frustrating profiles on the circuit.
Maverick McNealy is one of the best maidens around now and should love this, given his form at similar courses, but debutants really have struggled and that's also enough of a concern to put me off Denny McCarthy. One of the best putters around, McCarthy ended last year in excellent form and has his conditions, but these two plus newly-married Christiaan Bezuidenhout do have history against them and none had the Kapalua primer which might've balanced things out a little.
Instead, I'll take a chance on a class act at a big price in BRANDEN GRACE.
The best correlating form guide to this is El Camaleon, where four Sony Open champions have also triumphed despite its brief history, but next on the list could be Harbour Town – where Grace secured his first PGA Tour title. His second then came last February in Puerto Rico, reinforcing the profile of a player at his most comfortable by the sea.
This week's forecast suggests the wind will be significant enough to matter without making for a real grind, but there is some rain around and both would play to the strengths of Grace, winner of the Dunhill Links as well as in Doha and at Fancourt, courses which have long favoured links specialists and those who relish playing in a breeze.
Firmer conditions here would help but it will certainly suit Grace more than Kapalua, where he was the best iron player in the field on Thursday but the worst on Saturday in what we'll call a mixed display. That's been the way with Grace for a while now, and yet in his last eight PGA Tour starts he's still managed second in the Wyndham and seventh in the ZOZO, two events played on tree-lined courses which he also enjoys.
The best blend for Grace is a classical course by the coast and it wasn't a massive surprise that, having been way down the field on his Tournament of Champions debut, he was a solid 13th here on his first look at Waialae. His second, a missed cut last year, can be written off entirely, as his father Peter was seriously ill and passed away days after. Typical of the man, Grace soon produced one of the most emotional victories of the season to double his PGA Tour tally.
He'll need to improve but his feast-or-famine returns lately are no bad thing as we're getting three-figure prices about someone whose short-game (34th around-the-greens last season) is another asset at a course I suspect he really likes.
There's no denying the somewhat uncomfortable truth that this tournament can be won with a short-game. Indeed look at last year's around-the-green stats and you'll see defending champion Na right up there along with Smith, Fabian Gomez, Simpson, Kirk, Kuchar, Brian Stuard and others who've either won or established excellent records at Waialae.
It's that which made Bezuidenhout and McCarthy interesting but STEPHAN JAEGER is just as capable on and around the greens, and he has the benefit of two eye-catching starts here.
The German was 54th in 2018 and 43rd in 2019 but while those results may not set the pulse racing, it's significant that he gained strokes both off the tee and with his approaches each year. It was Jaeger's putter which kept him to low-leaderboard obscurity, ranking 67th and 63rd and doing a heck of a lot of damage.
Typically, Jaeger's short-game is where he gains an advantage, and in the embryonic stages of this season he's first in strokes-gained around-the-green among those who've played 16-plus rounds, as well as comfortably inside the top 30 in putting using the same measure. In his last full season on the PGA Tour he was fifth around the greens, with Sony winners Na, Thomas and Jimmy Walker close behind.
"I would say I'm probably a pretty good chipper and putter," he said earlier this season. "I think I've kind of realised that I got to play to my strength and if I have a good week that I hit it good, I'm going to be up there in contention. So that's kind of the motto going forward."
Jaeger hasn't yet produced that solid ball-striking week he needs to really capitalise, but 26th in the Sanderson Farms, 20th in Bermuda and 35th in Houston were all encouraging enough and he opened with a round of 66 when we last saw him at the RSM Classic. Among his best efforts at this level so far was 16th place at the correlating El Camaleon, and this six-time Korn Ferry Tour winner is surely capable of making the step up.
He's shown more promise here at Waialae than just about anywhere else and while consistency isn't a strong suit, and I generally prefer those who rely on their long-games, this looks a good time to chance him.
Si Woo Kim loves this type of test and is exactly the sort of rogue who could transform horror ball-striking numbers in the blink of an eye. He's tempting for those reasons, but I'm concerned that he chose not to play late last year and missed out on guaranteed major starts as a consequence, which suggests perhaps a physical issue for a player dogged by them in the past.
Joel Dahmen is another I had an eye on last week but his ball-striking regressed as the tournament developed and his short-game is a worry. As such I'll round things off with another outsider who played at Kapalua in the shape of KH LEE.
Having been 48th and 52nd around-the-greens over the last two seasons, Lee's short-game is a strength and we saw it here last year, when he ranked third in that department and closed with a round of 64 to sneak inside the top 20.
Last week was his first solo start since October and he was way down the field in 33rd, but he improved his score every day and was bogey-free over the last round and a half. It looked a nice pipe-opener at another course which favours those with past experience, one which has more quirks than Waialae.
Lee started the season with a run of MC-14-25-18 and looks to have adjusted now having impressed everyone in winning the Byron Nelson, so he could well kick on in 2022 and we know he can score around this course. Like a few of these he does need to improve his long-game from last week but he led the field in strokes-gained tee-to-green on a course needing similar qualities at the Wyndham and has shown more than enough since to believe he can be a threat.
And while Dahmen is 66/1 and Jones now ranges from 33s to the bits and pieces of 50s, with Lee we can still take 125s. He's just ahead of Jones in the world rankings and prior to last week had shown considerably better form over the last few months, so while I would narrowly favour the Australian in a head-to-head, at their respective prices it's the improving Korean who rates the value.
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Posted at 1825 GMT on 10/01/22