From Maui to Honolulu, the first two weeks of January might be the best time to be a member of the PGA Tour. Those fortunate enough to be invited to the year-opening Hawaii swing enjoy prodigious paychecks, immaculate weather, and maybe the most striking scenery the United States has to offer.
It’s not just the players who greatly benefit from the Tour’s sage decision to devote two weeks to the paradise that is the Aloha State. Fans are treated to intense competition from tenacious fields of acclaimed professionals anxious to get their year off to an encouraging start.
The first Hawaiian event, the SBS Tournament of Champions, featured a Sunday showdown between two of golf’s best young stars in Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama. At Kapalua, Thomas bested the red-hot Matsuyama for the second time in three months, this time by three strokes, to capture the first trophy of 2017.
This week at Waialae, the Sony Open field is over four times larger than the exclusive group that competed in Maui, and will again include both Thomas and Matsuyama, in addition to stars such as two-time major winner Jordan Spieth, Olympic Gold Medalist Justin Rose, 2016 PGA Champion, and two-time Sony winner, Jimmy Walker, among others. It promises to be among the most entertaining four days of the early season.
Like its sister tournament of the Hawaii swing, the SBS Tournament of Champions, the Sony Open has been a part of the PGA Tour for over half a century.
Beginning in 1965, then simply called the Hawaiian Open, the first tournament winner was American Gay Brewer. In the 50 tournaments that have been played since (it was skipped in 1970 as it moved from the fall to its early-winter slot), bigger name winners have included Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Hale Irwin, Corey Pavin, Lanny Wadkins, and Ernie Els.
Pavin, Wadkins, Els, Hubert Green, and Jimmy Walker are the only golfers with multiple Sony wins – each with two victories. Interestingly, all but Wadkins won their two titles in back-to-back years.
Walker is the only one of that group in the 2017 field, so he has a chance to become the first three-time winner. Walker’s 2015 win was by a whopping nine strokes, the largest margin of victory in tournament history.
The Sony Open drew media attention last decade for giving sponsor exemptions to the LPGA’s Michelle Wie from 2004-2007. Wie missed the cut in each edition, but in her defense, all four of her appearances occurred under the age of 18.
Name: Waialae Country Club
Where: Honolulu, HI
Distance: 7044 yards
Architect: Seth Raynor
Winning Share: $1,080,000
Fedex Cup Points: 500
The defending champion of the Sony Open is Fabian Gomez. Gomez won his second career tournament in a comeback effort over Brandt Snedeker.
The then 37-year-old Argentinian was four-strokes back going into the final round, but a 62, which tied Matt Kuchar and Graham DeLeat for the low round of the tournament, vaulted him into a playoff, which he won with a birdie on the second hole of sudden death.
The Sunday 62 included seven consecutive birdies from holes 6-12.
Other Recent Champions
2015: Jimmy Walker
2014: Jimmy Walker
2013: Russell Henley
2012: Johnson Wagner
2011: Mark Wilson
Lowest Final Score: The lowest final score at the Sony Open was 256 shot by Russell Henley in 2013. Henley finished 24-under-par.
Low Round: 60 (Davis Love III)
Round 1: 7-10:30 PM – Golf Channel
Round 2: 7-10:30 PM – Golf Channel
Round 3: 7-10:30 PM – Golf Channel
Round 4: 6-10:00 PM – Golf Channel
1. Justin Thomas versus Hideki Matsuyama
The two stars of the early PGA season, Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama, have an interesting dynamic going. Thomas already has two official PGA Tour wins, the first to hit that number: the CIMB Classic, which took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and last week’s SBS Tournament of Champions in Maui.
In both of those Thomas tournament victories, Hideki Matsuyama was the runner-up.
Matsuyama, meanwhile, has four wins in the last six events he has entered, both in the U.S. and internationally, with both of those non-wins being the two runner-ups to Thomas.
It has become a rivalry that not many envisioned. The two will tee it up again at the Sony Open, and both are considered to be among the favorites. Neither has won a major championship yet, but the way they’re going, it may just be a matter of time for both.
Justin Thomas gets somewhat overshadowed by close friends Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, but an argument could be made that he is as good as Fowler (he has the same amount of wins in 103 fewer events), and not far off from being in Spieth’s league.
In 2013, Justin Thomas did something for Alabama that much-hyped Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts has not: won a national championship. The golf prodigy from Louisville, Kentucky has three wins in just over two years as a full-time PGA Tour member, with two of those wins coming at the last two versions of the CIMB Classic.
In 2016, Thomas also finished third in four events, with the most prominent one occurring at the Players Championship in May. In just four events in the new season, Thomas has the two wins, in addition to another top 10 (T8 at the Safeway Classic) and another top 25 (T23 at the HSBC Champions).
Matsuyama, the current leader of the FedEx Cup standings, seems unable to be contained by anyone aside from Thomas as of late. He has the aforementioned four wins in his last six starts, including dominating a small, elite field at the Hero World Challenge where he did something even more seemingly impossible: took away attention from the return to competitive golf of Tiger Woods.
He was even more dominant at the WGC-HSBC Champions where he won by seven-strokes over Open Championship winner and 2016 Race to Dubai Champion Henrik Stenson. The start couldn’t be more encouraging for the young man whose immense potential has been obvious for a while, but was somewhat underwhelming in 2015-16, despite a win at the Phoenix Waste Management Open.
Eyes will be on both in Honolulu this week, as they attempt to continue incredible starts to their new seasons. TV networks could be a real winner this week if both are in competition again.
2. What to Expect From Fabian Gomez?
Defending champion Fabian Gomez does not get the same press as Argentinian contemporaries Angel Cabrera and Emiliano Grillo, but he’s proven to be a tremendous golfer in his own right over the past few seasons.
The come-from-behind win at the 2016 Sony was the brightest highlight from his season, but was not the only success he had. He finished a respectable 40th in the final FedEx Cup standings and contended at an elite-field event late in the year when he finished T5 at the Deutsche Bank Championship.
Gomez got his 2015-16 off to a tremendous start, with a win and three other top-20 finishes in his first five events, but tailed off considerably after that stretch.
The T5 at the Deutsche Bank and a T9 at the Wells Fargo Championship in May were his only finishes after January that were inside the top-40.
The win last year should give Gomez immense confidence going into this week, but with his lack of consistency, he is not being talked about much.
3. Sony Stalwart Jimmy Walker
Reigning PGA Champion Jimmy Walker, who has a reputation of being a tremendous early-season player, has torn up Waialae in recent years with the following finishes:
His impressive record of success at this course, combined with his recent confidence of becoming a major championship winner, makes Walker one of the top players to watch this week.
At last week’s Tournament of Champions, Walker contended early, sharing the lead after 18 holes. None of his next three rounds were closer than five strokes from his first round 65, but the aggregate performance was still good enough to post T9.
In 2015-16, he continued his streak of great early season play finishing inside the top-15 in all five events he entered from December through mid-February.
Everything seems to be aligned for another strong four rounds from Walker.
Other Notables in the Field
The world’s #4 ranked golfer finished strong at his Kapalua defense last week, shooting a final round 8-under 65 to finish in a tie for 3rd.
Spieth has only played the Sony Open once, missing the cut in 2014, but he is a favorite at every event he plays.
The 23-year-old star is anxious to bounce back from a 2016 season that was great, but did not quite reach the lofty expectations he had set after his monstrous 2015 – where he won two majors and was named the Tour’s Player of the Year.
The Englishman had become somewhat of a forgotten player in recent years, but reminded the golf world of his incredible talent when he went on a tear in the FedEx Cup playoffs, finishing runner-up at both the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship, and solo-fourth at the Tour Championship.
Casey also played well in the early 2016-17 fall season with strong finishes (T3, T21, T12 respectively) in the three events he entered.
Much more of a human interest story than a guy who is expected to compete, the now 26-year-old Fujikawa was the talk of the golf world when he made the Sony Open cut in 2007 as a 16-year-old amateur.
Fujikawa’s pro career has been a disappointment, as he has bounced around the smaller tours and now plays primarily in Canada.
Maybe the greatest Iowan in the history of professional sports not named Kurt Warner or Bob Feller, Johnson, a two-time major winner is coming off a season where he finished in the top-10 five times and was a useful player in the American Ryder Cup victory effort.
Johnson, who won this event in 2009, has finished in the top-10 in two of the past three Sony Opens.
One of three players over-50 in the field (along with Fred Funk and David Toms), Singh is the most accomplished tour professional at Waialae.
Qualifying for the Sony on a PGA Tour Life Member exemption, Singh has 34 career victories, with one of those coming at the Sony Open in 2005.