Waialae CC‘s a par 70 track tucked away in Honolulu. The fairways are pretty narrow (~50% fairways hit in recent tournaments), approach shots are shorter than average, and overall the course plays below par. Nothing else really stands out except that both par 5s are reachable in two by anyone in the field.
Looking at some stats, it’s normally been the case that guys who are less accurate off the tee have been fine here (Charles Howell III normally kills here, Jimmy Walker won last year, etc.). For what it’s worth, my numbers say guys who play better from the fairway than the rough have been more successful here – which makes no sense intuitively because half your approach shots are coming from the rough. If true, Chad Campbell, Zach Johnson, Chris Kirk, etc. are the guys who are better from the fairway than the rough, typically.
What I’m Looking For:
Luke Donald’s easily the most interesting guy in the field this week. Last season was a pretty large step down from his recent play – mostly manifested in how he hit his short irons and wedges. He moved on from longtime coach Pat Goss in 2013 saying he was looking to focus more on his ball-striking. His longer irons improved from 2012-13, but inside of <150 yards he completely fell off a cliff. He was one of the absolute best in the world with a short iron or wedge in his hand prior to this year, but posted numbers that were at or below Tour average in 2014. He decided to go back to Goss this fall; Goss said they immediately began focusing on “his strengths; putter, short game, bunker, wedges, shots inside 150 yards” (last year was also Donald’s worst season around the green in at least the last five years). Putting and short game play is more variable, but I’ll definitely be looking closely at how he’s hitting his irons/wedges this week.
I don’t think Donald’s ever going to get back to his 2011 peak where he was the best in the world, but if he can play well inside 150 yards, rediscover the short game touch, and continue to be among the world’s best putters, he can return to being one of the best 20 or so in the game. That combination probably will not win him a major (recent major winners have been heavily biased towards guys who are better with long irons), but he’ll contend often. I think some folks have forgotten he came within a Matt Kuchar hole-out of winning at Harbour Town just eight months ago and had three other top tens by May.
I’ll also be keeping an eye on Matt Kuchar going forward. Ever since he injured his back prior to the PGA Championship he’s been getting more or less similar results, but driven by different parts of his game. Prior to the injury he let his long game (approach shots+tee shots) carry him, but afterwards its been all about the short game and the long game has fallen off. He said he was healthy as soon as the Barclays, but it’s something to keep an eye on if he keeps struggling with those longer shots.
Rookies Tony Finau and Justin Thomas both rate out as above-average Tour players already based off their results in 2014. Finau had easily the most impressive debut of any rookie in the fall portion, earning two top 10s and two more top 20s in five starts. Come for the ridiculous power he can generate with the driver (#4 in club head speed in 2015), but stay for his approach shots (almost a full stroke better than the field so far). If he can retain any of that performance going forward he’ll contend for a win and Rookie of the Year honors.
Thomas’s debut was sloppier, but he scored a top 5 in Mississippi after a trio of bad outings to start the year.
This also marks the earliest we’ve ever seen Francesco Molinari appear in the US for a full field event. He’s mostly spent his time in Europe, appearing only a handful of times in the US for normal PGA Tour tournaments. He’s long had the talent to hang around at the top of leaderboards so he could make a significant splash if he starts playing a lot of US events this year. Molinari’s one of the most accurate guys in the world off the tee.
Best Past Results:
These are the guys who have played best here relative to their typical performances. In other words, for each year they’ve played I’m comparing their Sony performance to their average performance for the year (minimum 3 starts here since 2008).
1. Brendon Todd
2. Brian Stuard
3. Chris Kirk
4. Marc Leishman
5. Charles Howell III
I don’t put a lot of stock in these because they’re a bit polluted by putting luck and only represent a handful of rounds.