Sony Open preview: Chris Kirk fancied for fast start in Hawaii

Patton Kizzire pictured after winning the Sony Open
Patton Kizzire pictured after winning the Sony Open

Ben Coley looks at the state of play ahead of the Sony Open, where pre-tournament fancy Chris Kirk can win his round-one three-ball.

Recommended bets

2pts Chris Kirk to beat Keith Mitchell and Scott Brown at 6/4

Round one preview

My focus early on Thursday will be on Jordan Spieth's return to action at 1800 GMT.

He tees off with Bryson DeChambeau and Gary Woodland and will do so as the outsider of three, which still seems wrong even if it may well be right, that duo having been in undeniably better form and having warmed up at last week's Tournament of Champions.

I'll cover Spieth in the second section but having taken a speculative punt on him in the outright market, I certainly won't be backing him to win his three-ball - even at north of 2/1. Chances are he'll have to play as well as he has in many months to win it.

Instead, it could pay to hold fire for another pre-tournament selection with Chris Kirk fancied to get the better of Keith Mitchell and Scott Brown at 2150.

There will be a good atmosphere among this group, all three having resided at Sea Island, and that will very much suit the carefree Kirk, who ranked fifth in round-one scoring last season.

Mitchell enjoyed an excellent rookie campaign on the PGA Tour and that includes a top-30 finish on his debut here, but I'm still unconvinced that it's a course which plays to his very modern strengths.

Having signed off last year on a low-key note, missing the cut at Sea Island, he's probably there to be shot at and Kirk is an ideal player to side with given his deep bank of course experience, most of which is positive.

He's broken 70 in round one a total of six times here, that's from just eight visits, and was in fact in front 12 months ago following a blistering 63.

Brown showed a little more at the course last year but remains without so much as a top-60 in five visits, and he arrived back then with two top-10 finishes in his previous four starts elsewhere. He's not added one since.

At 3/1, I'm not sure his course woes and long-term malaise are accurately accounted for and I also have to dispute the verdict of 888sport/Unibet, who can't split Kirk and Mitchell at 6/4.

In fact, anything bigger than evens about Kirk looks very solid and he rates the pick of the three-balls, unless you're able to avail yourself of the evens one firm offers about Kevin Kisner seeing off veteran duo Steve Stricker and Davis Love.

State of play

As might have been expected, all five selections this week have been popular in the market though I'm glad to report that there has not been a concerted move for Jordan Spieth.

It's not always easy, however many words you type, to convey the precise reasons for any specific bet and I fear I didn't quite get across the point with this one: in this field, on this course, I'll take a small chance at 20/1 and lose no sleep if he misses the cut.

The debate over value is as old as the hills and I believe the ultimate aim is to find the sweet spot where it crosses over with a profile you happen to like, what some would term 'fancying' a player. That's basically the case with all of my other selections this week and will be for most this year, but not Spieth.

I have no idea how he'll play and wouldn't like to suggest otherwise. I have no way of knowing whether he's going to putt better than he did in 2018, and indeed in previous starts here; no insight into what he's been working on, if anything, nor how far along the road to full recovery he is.

But he was a bigger price, considerably so in places, than Gary Woodland, and he is Jordan Spieth. While I would like to say my love for both these golfers is different yet equal, there can be no denying one is very, very good whereas the other will be remembered one day as a modern great.


Key market movers

  • Charles Howell III - 50/1 into 25/1
  • Patton Kizzire - 60/1 into 35/1
  • Justin Thomas - 8/1 into 6/1
  • Brian Harman - 80/1 into 50/1

Other popular players: Cameron Smith (28/1), Si-Woo Kim (50/1), Andrew Putnam (66/1), Chris Kirk (80/1), Sung-jae Im (90/1)


You are never wrong to back a player of his calibre at an extraordinary price, which brings me nicely to Bubba Watson, currently trading at 100.00 on the exchanges.

Watson is only one major behind Spieth and won three times last year, yet there are 25 or so players - the majority of whom are far less credentialed - who are considered by the weight of the market to hold superior claims this week.

Two notable golf traders independently (?) made the point that he's now three-times the price of defending champion Patton Kizzire, having been a quarter of the price just last week. Setting aside the very different nature of Waialae compared to Kapalua, that's an astonishing turnaround worthy of attention.

And yet, the best golf tipster in the country has sided with Kizzire, as he has Charles Howell, a duo who between them have not half Bubba's silverware.

As for me, there's still no temptation to back Bubba, because I simply believe he stands very little chance of winning at this golf course having failed so spectacularly at a more suitable one last week. Kizzire felt short, but I would still rather back him, because I do believe he holds a solid chance. For this week only - and that's all the prices reflect - he really should be shorter. How much is open to debate.

All of which is to say that within lies the real beauty of betting on golf: there are more imponderables, fewer things we can really hope to predict, than any other sport. It's why the rewards for being right are considerable, and the punishment for being wrong will typically be soft. And it's why for one man Kizzire is a strong bet and for others he's far too short.

I doubt those using Watson as their point of reference are backing him, mind.

And finally for this section, one of the complaints - understandable complaints - I receive is that it's hard, sometimes, to get on at the advised prices. I'm afraid that's beyond my control and I've no way of solving the problem.

It's also a little selective and a look at the betting exchange is always advised as the tournament approaches. There you can currently back my 250/1 tips, Dom Bozzelli and Scott Langley, at around the 500/1 mark. Yes, you're missing out on the increasingly generous each-way terms elsewhere, but there are alternative ways to play - and they both remain acceptably priced with fixed-odds firms at 200/1, too.

Ryan Armour remains steady at 100/1 generally and around 150/1 on the exchanges, despite being mentioned what felt like here, there and everywhere, and at 80/1 from 100/1 it's not like Kirk has been slashed, nor Andrew Putnam at 66/1 from 80/1.

From the pressers

Defending champion Patton Kizzire did what was expected and spoke favourably of the tournament, the area, the people and so on, but there's no denying he does play his best golf under Sony Open conditions and has cause for confidence this week.

"It feels good (to be back), he said. "I told my wife, Kari, when we got here, I said, I just feel comfortable here. It's so nice staying right on the beach; country club feel. Everybody in Hawaii is nice so it feels good."

What he should have said there is 'everbody in Hawaii is nice except for Bob Allenby's kidnappers', but there we have it.

Kizzire did go on to offer a frank assessment of what proved to be a disappointing 2018, speaking honestly about how the Ryder Cup proved to be a distraction and admitting that he's a player who needs to make mistakes to improve.

As press conferences with defending champions go, it was a very good one. Click here for the full transcript.

On Wednesday, it was Jordan Spieth's turn to speak with the media and, as ever, it was engrossing. This is the Sony Open, what happens here really shouldn't shape his year (unless he were to win), but Spieth answered questions with the blend of openness and intensity which makes him so likeable.

As for expectations, it's clear he doesn't really have any.

"I decided that really wanted to many come down here. I like the golf course a lot, the hospitality is fantastic, and the weather is perfect.

"Really could come down and try out the very little work I was able to put in, but at least knock some rust off and gather some information about where I am at and hopefully make some adjustments going forward into the season.

"Happy to be down here; just trying to take it lightly. Maybe a little bit lower expectations this week. Just try and plot my way around the place."

Those words reminded me of Tiger Woods at the start of his comeback and the entire press conference did take on that kind of feel - like he's coming back from injury, rather than simply returning from a fairly standard break (during which he got married) after a mediocre 2018.

"I feel pretty patient with what's coming because I know I'm working on the right things," he added. "Took me a while to figure out what that was. Now I know I'm working on the right things in the game to get back on track and get to where I'm as a consistent as I've been before.

"It's a matter of time, but I need on-course, in-tournament reps as well to continue to speed that up."

Clearly, Spieth doesn't expect to win this week and I've always considered him to be a very good judge when it comes to his own game. Hand on heart, then, I probably wouldn't be backing him now - but, one final time, this is Jordan Spieth. If he rolls in a 15-foot putt for birdie on the first, for example, of course he can win.

"People lost confidence in me in 2016. I mean, I still won twice. I should have won another major that year. It's funny now. I remember in 2015 to '16 the words 'The Big Three' being mentioned so many times, almost every interview. Not one of us three has been talked about in the last couple years. Everyone is so quick on what's happening. I mean, it's today's news.

"But the thing for us is not to get caught up in today's news. It's easy to sometimes when you're not used to it. I haven't seen, read, or heard anything on it. I learned that lesson already because I know what's wrong with Jordan Spieth, and I know what's right with Jordan Spieth.

"It's not like it's to shoot anybody down for saying or writing about that. Again, you guys are here to write about today's news, what's happening today. Well, that's happening. But on the same side, we can't get caught up in it because we look at the longevity of a career and recognize the ups and downs and peaks and valleys."

He is just a world-class human. I'll never forget the first time I sat opposite him in a press conference. Ben Crenshaw once said Spieth reminds him of Wyatt Earp, because he's 'going to gun you down'. Whether the barrel is loaded in time for us this week I can't be sure, but the fact he's still favourite for the Masters tells you that I'm not alone in expecting him to be firing soon.

Recommended reading

I can't promise this will be a weekly feature but for those without twitter or golf.com saved in their favourites, please do make time to read this remarkable story, told by Alan Shipnuck.

Not that I'm in a position to review proper golf journalists, but Alan is a beautiful writer who nurtures stories with the very best. By his own admission, being a famed twitter provocateur might dilute that fact from time to time but there's nobody better at this sort of thing for my money.

Selections box

My selections: Spieth, Kirk, Putnam, Langley, Bozzelli

Steve Palmer: Howell III, Cam Smith, Kizzire, Harman, SW Kim

Dave Tindall: Harman, Z Johnson, Ancer

Steve Rawlings: Kizzire, Kuchar, Z Johnson, Piercy, Garnett, Gomez

Niall Lyons: Bradley, Kuchar, Howell III, Armour, Lahiri, Im

Steve Bamford: Leishman, Howell III, Kizzire, Putnam

Posted at 2200 GMT on 09/01/19.

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