10 Players to Watch: Sony Open in Hawaii

  1. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan — Even though he couldn’t quite catch Justin Thomas last week in the final round of the SBS Tournament of Champions, Matsuyama remains the hottest player in the world with four victories and two runner-up finishes in his last six starts. No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking, Matsuyama has finished in the top 10 in his last seven outings dating to the Tour Championship in September. Matsuyama has never played well at the Sony Open in Hawaii in his four previous starts, but he has not come to Waialae with the form he has displayed in the last several months. He missed the cut in his first three appearances in the second event of the year and tied for 78th last year, when he showed he can play the course with a 4-under-par 66 in the second round.
  1. Jordan Spieth, United States — Take away three big numbers and Spieth would have been right with his pal Justin Thomas, who captured the SBS Tournament of Champions last week. The fifth-ranked player in the world blistered Kapalua with a bogey-free 8-under-par 65 in the final round to finish in a tie for third in his title defense in the first event of the year. Spieth led the field with 26 birdies over 72 holes on the Plantation course and also had an eagle, but threw in two double bogeys and a triple bogey while shaking off the holiday rust. He recorded his first top-10 result of the new season after totaling 23 over the last two years. Spieth is making on his second start at the Sony Open in Hawaii, and three years ago he shot 70-71 — 141 to miss the cut by two strokes.
  1. Jimmy Walker, United States — Although he couldn’t keep it after opening with a bogey-free 65 last week in the SBS Tournament of Champions, Walker got off to a solid start with a tie for ninth at Kapalua. The reigning PGA champion will play in one of his favorite PGA Tour events this week, the Sony Open in Hawaii, teeing it up for the 11th time at Waialae. In 2013, Walker birdied four of the last six holes while closing with a 7-under-par 63 to beat Chris Kirk by one stroke for his second PGA Tour victory. A year later, he repeated in Honolulu by playing the weekend in 62-63 to blow away the field, winning by nine strokes over Scott Piercy. Walker posted four rounds in the 60s last year in his double title defense to tie for 13th, and is 62-under in his last 16 rounds at Waialae.
  1. Justin Thomas, United States — After losing all but one of a five-stroke lead down the stretch last week in the SBS Tournament of Champions, Thomas gave himself three-foot birdie putts on the last two holes to win by three over Hideki Matsuyama of Japan. It was his second victory in his last three starts, as he also defended his title in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia in November, when he also defeated Matsuyama by three shots. His latest victory lifted the 23-year-old Thomas to No. 12 in the world, and he has three top-10 finishes in the new season after recording seven in 2015-16. Thomas will make his third start in the Sony Open in Hawaii this week and has had mixed results in the first two. He shared the lead at 68-61 — 129 two years ago before slipping to a tie for sixth at the finish, and last year shot 70-71 — 141 to miss the cut by four strokes.
  1. Paul Casey, England — Even though he did not win last season, Casey got his career back on track with seven finishes in the top 10 on the PGA Tour, including an impressive run at the end of the FedExCup playoffs, finishing second in the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship before he wound up fourth in the Tour Championship. Once No. 3 in the world, he is back up to No. 15, and posted three top-25 finishes in the early portion of the 2016-17 season, including third in the Safeway Championship. While also playing the European Tour, Casey made only two trips to the Sony Open in Hawaii, but now that he is strictly playing the PGA Tour he might make it to the islands more often. He tied for 30th two years ago at Waialae, fading after he shared the first-round lead with a 62, and shot 75-74 — 149 to miss the cut by seven shots in 2005.
  1. Brandt Snedeker, United States — Snedeker got off to a bit of a disappointing start in 2017 when he tied for 14th in the SBS Tournament of Champions, as he was let down by his normally reliable putter, finishing at minus-0.899 in strokes gained-putting. However it probably was simply a bit of rust since he is one of the best putters in the game and is coming off a season in which he finished in the top 10 on seven occasions, and in the top 25 a total of 14 times. Snedeker, who will defend his eighth PGA Tour title at the Farmers Insurance Open in two weeks, is making his fourth appearance at the Sony Open in Hawaii and he had a great chance to win it last year. He led almost all the way after starting with a 7-under-par 63, but Fabian Gomez caught him with a closing 62 and beat him with a birdie on the second playoff hole.
  1. Justin Rose, England — The Olympic gold medalist is making his first start of the 2016-17 on the PGA Tour, having played only once since the Ryder Cup in October and finishing in a tie for 36th in the UBS Hong Kong Open on the European Tour. Rose did not win on the PGA Tour last season, the first time that happened since 2009, coming closest in his five top-10 results when he finished third in the Wells Fargo Championship. The 2013 U.S. Open champion is hoping to start turning things around this week when he plays at the Sony Open in Hawaii for the fifth time, but the first since 2011. That year, he posted a tie for 13th when he slid down the leaderboard after being one-stroke out of the first-round lead with a 5-under 65. That came a year after Rose’s best finish at Waialae, a tie for 12th, when he shot 65 in the second round and 64 in the last.
  1. Pat Perez, United States — Playing perhaps the best golf of his career at the age of 40, Perez is third in the 2016-17 FedEx Cup standings after three strong results. He claimed his second PGA Tour victory in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba and tied for seventh in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in November, then started the new year last week with a tie for third in the SBS Tournament of Champions. That has come after he was out most of the 2015-16 season because of a shoulder injury, which caused him to miss the cut in eight of the 11 tournaments he played. Perez will make his 16th consecutive start at the Sony Open in Hawaii and his best result was a tie for fourth in 2008, when he finished six strokes behind winner K.J. Choi. He also tied for ninth in 2013, when he shot 7-under 63 in round two, tied for 12th the following year and tied for 10th in 2007.
  1. Russell Knox, Scotland — Coming off a season in which he claimed his first two victories on the PGA Tour in the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Travelers Championship, Knox has kept it going by finishing in the top 10 in three of his first four events of the new season. He missed only last week in the SBS Tournament of Champions, where he seemed headed for a fourth in a row only to close with a 73 at Kapalua and slip to a tie for 17th in the winners-only field. Knox will try to get back on track this week at the Sony Open in Hawaii, where he has not had too much success in his previous five appearances. He has missed the cut four times, including last year, but in 2015 he seemed to have figured out Waialae when he posted four rounds in the 60s and wound up in a tie for 13th.
  1. Zach Johnson, United States — Following his victory in the 2015 Open Championship at St. Andrews, which with his 2007 Masters victory gave him half of the Career Grand Slam, Johnson has gone into a bit of a slump. He finished in the top 10 only five times in 24 starts during the 2015-16 season, and the highlight probably was a tie for eighth in the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Johnson played only once in the Fall portion of the new season and missed the cut in his home event, the RSM Classic. He’s hoping to start turning things around this week at the Sony Open in Hawaii, which he captured in 2007 for one of his 12 victories on the PGA Tour, beating Adam Scott and David Toms by two strokes. Johnson is playing at Waialae for the 12th time and he also tied for eighth in 2014 and tied for ninth last year.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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