2pts each-way Tom Hoge @ 22/1
1.5pts each-way Russell Henley @ 18/1
1.5pts each-way Tom Kim @ 11/1
1pt each-way Corey Conners @ 20/1
0.5pts each-way Taylor Montgomery @ 33/1
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It may only be a 75-mile hop from Kapalua to Honolulu but there could hardly be two more different tests of golf than the Plantation course, where Jon Rahm has started our tipping year with an astonishing from-nine-behind triumph even he could never have expected, to Waialae, the home of the Hawaiian Open since its inception in 1965.
Only it’s the Sony Open in Hawaii these days, has been since 1999, when Waialae was given a revamp and the front and back nines were reversed to make better use of the sun setting in the west. Yet it remains the antithesis of the wildly undulating, massively long, exposed par 73 Kapalua.
Instead a full field (as opposed to last week’s 39) faces a flat, well-bunkered parkland par 70 of just 7044 yards that rewards straight driving and pinpoint iron play over brute power.
Chalk and cheese though they are, it hasn’t stopped great players pulling off the Hawaiian double. Ernie Els did it in 2003 and Justin Thomas, having just won at Kapalua, opened up with a 59 at Waialae that killed the Sony stone dead six years ago.
Els was 47 under par for his eight-round spree, JT trumped it with 49. Rahm incidentally is 60 for his last eight rounds at Kapalua. A birdie paradise, golf from the gods.
There’s no Thomas in this year’s line-up nor Rahm or poor Collin Morikawa, who must have needed to lie down in a darkened room for quite a while after blowing a seven-shot lead with 11 to play on Sunday, but 19 make the trans-island trip to Oahu.
Among them are defending champion Hideki Matsuyama and other big crowd-pullers like Jordan Spieth and Tom Kim, the fearless 20-year-old everyone wants to see.
The South Korean’s share of fifth on his Kapalua debut saw him flip-flop with Spieth in the world rankings and he is now, at 14, the highest-rated runner in this week’s line-up.
With fellow Presidents Cup men Sungjae Im, Adam Scott, Billy Horschel, KH Lee, Corey Conners, Cam Davis and Christiaan Bezuidenhout also on parade, it’s a decent show for the 25th anniversary of Sony’s sponsorship although there will be disappointment that no top-ten player fancied the gig.
There are obvious advantages those who competed last week have over the 2023 debutants, not least that bodies and brains have adapted to the time-zone change, all of five hours in the case of the Florida-based golfers who account for the majority.
So no surprise that 17 of the last 24 Sony winners had teed up at Kapalua and four of the last seven. It’s a slim advantage but in a game where even a one-shot edge can mean the difference between victory and defeat it is worth taking into account.
Partly for that reason, my four main picks, Tom Hoge, Tom Kim, Russell Henley and Conners all rocked up at Kapalua with varying degrees of success.
Henley finished nearer last than first but gets the vote on his Waialae form, a victory in 2013, almost an encore last year when pipped in a playoff by Matsuyama, and other strong showings in 2017 and 2021.
In contrast, Hoge and Kim had fabulous weeks in third and fifth places respectively on their Tournament of Champions bows. After six years as a run-of-the-mill journeyman, 33-year-old Hoge’s breakthrough win at Pebble Beach last February has turned the North Carolinan into a confident birdie machine who is a match for all but the best.
Although his victory with Sahith Theegala in the pre-Christmas QBE Shootout was only a bit of fun, it was further proof that Hoge now has the weapons to be a consistent win-and-place operator and he’s the No. 1 bet on a course where he finished only a shot out of the 2018 playoff, won by Patton Kizzire.
He has come on a bundle since then and this is his time of year if 2022 is anything to go by: not only did he win at Pebble, two tournaments earlier he placed second at the other big Californian pro-am, the American Express.
Incidentally, Hoge is taking a very circuitous route from Maui to Honolulu as he is fitting Los Angeles in between while lending vocal support to his alma mater in a big college football final. But don’t let that stop you backing him!
Kim, twice a winner already in a career not yet a year old, continues to be sensational. Now a Dallas resident, he spent Christmas with his new friend Spieth, is reported to have out-eaten his trencherman host and certainly outputted him at Kapalua in finishing eight spots ahead of the Texan whose discomfort over those five-footers is plain to see.
Spieth’s third at Waialae in 2017 came at a time when that part of his game came much more easily to him and even though Jordan drives it longer and straighter than he used to, he just cannot afford to give away those strokes on the green. Last year he ranked 192nd in 5ft conversions.
Kim’s classy compatriot Sungjae Im, who shared 13th with Spieth, is reluctantly discarded as he has yet to improve in four subsequent attempts on a 16th on his Waialae debut.
Preferred at bigger odds is Canadian Conners. A middle-order 18th at Kapalua, he is one of the safest tee-to-green players around and has solid course credentials, third in 2019, 12th in 2020 and 11th last year. There was no shame in losing all four of his Presidents Cup matches as three of them were very close and he only needs the flat stick to function and he will add to his lone tour success at the 2019 Texas Open.
Matsuyama looks sure to challenge but defending a title Is never easy, while JJ Spaun punched above his weight in finishing seventh in the ToC and may have trouble repeating that performance on a tighter, tree-lined track.
Two to consider who weren’t at Kapalua are steady veteran Chris Kirk, runner-up in 2014 and 2021 and tenth in 2018, and touted newcomer Taylor Montgomery, the lanky Las Vegan who posted six top-15s from his first seven main-tour starts in the autumn topped by third place in the Fortinet Championship. He possesses an all-round game worth much gold in the coming years.
Just to make you jealous, the sun’s out in Hawaii with temperatures heading towards the 80s and just the gentlest of breezes. It’s all right for some!
5pts GB & Ireland @ 4/5
The DP World Tour tees off with a new team event, the Hero Cup in Abu Dhabi, aimed at giving Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald a few steers towards his pairings for the big match in Rome in September – and it could be a thriller in its own right.
It’s a revival of the old Seve Trophy which ran for eight editions from 2000 with the score Great Britain & Ireland 6, Continental Europe 2 before the fixture came to end in 2013 two years after Ballesteros’s untimely death.
GB & I are led by Tommy Fleetwood with the Continentals under the wing of Francesco Molinari, who scored a maximum five out of five in his last Ryder Cup in 2018 and was on the winning team on all three appearances, in a ten-a-side match play contest over three days, starting with five foursomes on Friday.
Unlike the Ryder Cup, everybody will play all three days instead of two sitting out each pairs session and there’s only one set of fourballs instead of two. But the biggest difference will be in the atmosphere: instead of a noisy, partisan full house, they’ll be struggling for spectators even with free admission.
It’s possibly unfair to call it a Ryder Cup trial so early in the year when some will be rusty but even so, anybody who blows out and flops can expect to move down the pecking order. So you can bet your boots that beneath the match’s genteel exterior, those on the fringes of Ryder contention will be all out to catch the captain’s eye.
Monday’s withdrawal of injured Danish star Rasmus Hojgaard was a blow to Molinari’s men but identical twin Nicolai is an explosive substitute whose extra length will be invaluable in the fourballs.
It’s an intriguing match: GB & I have the bigger names at the top in Shane Lowry, Tyrrell Hatton and Fleetwood, all members of the last Ryder Cup side, whereas the Continentals have no current Ryder Cup men but three members of earlier teams in Molinari, Alex Noren and Thomas Pieters. But they appear to have a bit more strength in depth with nobody as low as GB & I’s Matt Wallace (182nd) and Richard Mansell (189th) in the rankings.
The Continentals have some ready-made pairings by nationality: the two Thomases, Pieters and Detry, won the World Cup for Belgium in 2018, the last time it was played; Molinari, unbeaten in his last Ryder Cup that same year, will probably shepherd Guido Migliozzi; Frenchmen Victor Perez and Antoine Rozner look a fit: the two Scandas, Noren and Hojgaard, are a mix of experience and youth; and US-based Austrian Sepp Straka, no midget himself, could team up with the 6ft 6in Pole Adrian Meronk, the Irish Open champion and more recently runaway Australian Open winner.
With Fleetwood (twice), Lowry and Hatton all past winners of the Abu Dhabi Championship on this same demanding 7642-yard par 72, GB & Ireland have a massive advantage in course expertise and that should enable them to justify favouritism but there won’t be much in it and the tie is not ruled out.
The in-form Irish pair, BMW PGA hero Shane Lowry and US-based Seamus Power, winner of the Bermuda Championship in October, could lead from the front while Fleetwood and Hatton may be tasked with holding some of the newcomers’ hands.
Having won the Italian Open on the Ryder Cup course outside Rome, aggressive Scot Bob MacIntyre has virtually guaranteed himself a place and he may link up with fellow countryman Ewen Ferguson, the first of whose two victories last year came in the desert, in Qatar.
With 25 points at stake instead of the 28 at the Ryder Cup, go for a narrow GB & Ireland triumph at 4/5 but it’s not one to put the house on. There will be more betting opportunities when the first-day draw is announced and again for Sunday’s ten singles.
The Cup leads seamlessly into next week’s $9m Abu Dhabi Championship at Yas Links where Pieters won last year. LIV rebels Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson, Bernd Wiesberger, Sam Horsfield and Richard Bland will be joining the party. Stormy times ahead?
This week’s teams:
Great Britain & Ireland: Fleetwood, Lowry, Hatton, Power, MacIntyre, Ferguson, Wallace, Mansell, Callum Shinkwin, Jordan Smith.
Continental Europe: F Molinari, Pieters, Noren, Straka, Meronk, Perez, Detry, Rozner, Migliozzi, N Hojgaard.
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