Golf,

Course king Kisner a fair Waialae bet

THE SONY OPEN


Best bets
2pts each-way Kevin Kisner @ 28/1
2pts each-way Marc Leishman @ 18/1
1pt each-way Chris Kirk @ 66/1
1pt each-way Kevin Na @ 25/1
0.5pt each-way Cam Davis @ 50/1
0.5pt each-way Stewart Cink @ 80/1
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We’re paying SEVEN places at the Sony Open!


If the rest of 2022 comes anywhere near matching the drama, excitement and torrent of birdies and eagles of the PGA Tour’s traditional curtain-raiser, the Tournament of Champions, in America’s 50th and last State – Hawaii joined the Union in 1959 if you’re a trivia buff – we are in for a helluva year.

From a European point of view it was disappointing that world No. 1 Jon Rahm narrowly failed to force Cameron Smith to a play-off in an absorbing weekend head-to-head after making up a three-shot half-time deficit, but when an opponent shoots 34 under on a course measuring 7500 yards, the Spaniard has nothing to reproach himself for.

That 34 under beat Ernie Els’ 2003 super-low winning score by three but as it was clean-and-place for the first two days because of the rain-softened terrain on the wide-open Plantation course, Cam’s feat may not appear in the record books.

That won’t worry him as the 20/1 shot claimed the scalp of the world’s best player and showed grit and putting wizardry under severe pressure on what was only his second solo PGA Tour victory (although he had been half of the winning team in two New Orleans pairs tournaments). And the $1.46m cheque will come in handy.

His thoughts now turn to this week’s second leg of the Hawaiian Swing, the Sony Open, a 50-minute hop from Maui to Honolulu, where the short, fiddly Waialae course provides a totally different test. Not so different that Els and, more recently, Justin Thomas completed the Hawaii double, shooting phenomenal scores – Els 47 under, Thomas 49 under for the eight rounds – in doing so.

It is a plus for Smith that his lone previous success came at Waialae two years ago but that came in windy conditions when scoring was more difficult than normal on this 7014-yard par 70. This week’s forecast does not suggest conditions will be similar. It will however be rainy, even thundery, early in the tournament which should soften fairways and greens, making birdies easier to come by.

Fitzdares make Smith 9/1 favourite in a medium-strength field, 22 of the 38 Kapalua contestants, but not big names Rahm, Thomas and Open champion Collin Morikawa, having taken the 90-mile trip from Maui to Oahu.

As Smith’s other Waialae efforts have been less impressive and his prolonged, heroic effort in keeping the mighty Rahm at bay will have taken plenty out of him, he looks a market leader to take on and I have come up with two fellow Aussies to turn the tables on him while making quiet American Kevin Kisner my chief investment at 28/1.

Dogged Kevin putted superbly when eighth last week on a course not obviously favouring his straight but short-hitting game. Waialae is far more a track for the 37-year-old from South Carolina who knows how to win – last year’s Wyndham Championship was his fourth – but needs short, tight courses like Waialae to show him to best advantage.

Only 32nd last year, he finished fourth there two years ago and carded back-to-back top-fives in 2017 and 2018.

The main dangers may come from Oz as Smith’s victory will spur his mates to upgrade their games. The obvious one is Matt Jones after his 61-62 for third spot at the weekend but although he was 11th at Waialae last year, he could do no better than 29th on six previous visits. And he surely will not enjoy the same luck that sent him soaring into contention.

Preferred are compatriots Marc Leishman, a big gamble this week, and Cam Davis. They shared tenth place on Sunday and seven of the last eight winners played Kapalua the week before, a tip in itself.

Leishman, who was put up last week but missed three key five-footers when close to the lead on Saturday, is given a second chance as his course form (fourth to Kevin Na last year, third to Thomas in 2019, plus three other top-tens) merits close inspection.

The trick to taming Waialae is not in the tee shots (when Thomas and Smith won in 2019/20, they hit fewer than 50% of the fairways) but on the iron play and course management. A good touch on Bermuda greens is also key but that applies anywhere.

Davis broke through at the Rocket Mortgage in Detroit last July and at 26 has a big future. A pair of 66s to finish at Kapalua have sent him to Honolulu in a birdie mood. He was ninth at Waialae on only his second visit and is a better golfer two years on.

Cases can also be made for Masters hero Hideki Matsuyama, golfaholic Sungjae Im who hates taking time off, course specialist Webb Simpson (4-3-4 the last three years but winless for quite a while) and Canadian Corey Conners.

And I dare not leave out 2021 champion Na who warmed up nicely for his title defence with an eyecatching 13th at the weekend. He is one tough hombre, not a big hitter by any means but lethal from 100 yards in.

Although inconsistent, if you go back far enough he has also posted a fourth, fifth and eighth in his Waialae portfolio and won’t concede his crown easily.

My final two picks, Chris Kirk and Stewart Cink, come at far bigger odds. Kirk was only a shot out of a play-off last year and has clocked up three other top fives at Waialae while how can we forget Cink, a 150/1 winner for us at Hilton Head last year?

The 2009 Open champion played nicely for three rounds last week and has two Waialae top-tens on his CV. With two quick wins in 2020-21 after an 11-year drought, the 48-year-old oozes confidence these days and has even put on length with a lower-loft driver.

In two years’ time, he’ll be mopping up on the over-50s circuit but with his new-found length off the tee, he still has at least one more main-tour win in him.


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