Last week’s 2019-opening PGA Tour event – the Sentry Tournament of Champions, featured a player (Xander Schauffele) posting an unfathomable 11-under final round to win by a single stroke.
This week, the Tour stays in Hawaii for the 54th edition of the Sony Open, and while last week’s action in Kapalua set the bar ridiculously high, Waialae Country Club is a scoring dream that has the potential to create the same kind of final-round drama.
Schauffele is not in this week’s field, but many other great players will be teeing it up in Honolulu, including Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau, and Patrick Reed. Each figures to play a large role in how the tournament unfolds, but they comprise only a few of the juicy storylines this week.
The following are a few others worth keeping a close eye on.
1. Kizzire Defends
Despite Maui’s Waialae Country Club traditionally being a birdie-fest, last year’s Sony Open was decided largely by who could make pars. Journeyman Tom Hoge, the 54-hole leader, double-bogeyed 16 to fall behind late, while Patton Kizzire parred the final five holes to force a playoff with James Hahn, who – himself – closed with pars on Nos. 16, 17 and 18.
Kizzire would go on to win the playoff with a par on the sixth sudden death hole after Hahn made bogey.
The victory for the then 31-year-old Kizzire – an Auburn University product, seemed to elevate him to a different standing among the Tour’s best. It was his second victory in just four events, having outdueled Rickie Fowler in a 36-hole Sunday marathon in Mexico, and he showed incredible composure in the process, never wilting to the pressure.
Something happened, though, when he hit that Sony apex: The towering figure suddenly lost his game.
In his next two events, Kizzire would finish T42 and T31, respectively. Nothing spectacular, but at least he was playing on the weekend. That would not hold as he proceeded to miss six of his next seven cuts. And that one made-cut? That was at the limited-field, no-cut WGC-Mexico Championship.
As his driving and wedge game floundered, Kizzire made the Tour Championship by just the skin of his teeth, which seems crazy given the FedExCup point advantage he enjoyed for much of the season.
However, coming into the new calendar year, there is hope again for Kizzire. In his last start in the fall, Kizzire used a 63-66 weekend to finish a respectable T15 at the RSM Classic. Then after the December layoff, Kizzire notched his first top-10 since his Sony victory by placing T8 at last week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions. He had just five bogeys for the entire week and was one of the best putters at Kapalua.
His accuracy off the tees is still a concern, but the way Waialae sets up, it should not be a death sentence in his championship defense.
2. Spieth Back to Work
Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth will be coming into Waialae ice-cold this year. Typically, he plays the Sony following four rounds at Kapalua in Maui. The problem this year, though, was that Spieth went winless in 2018, and did not qualify for the winners-only event, after having won eight times in the three years prior.
The 2018 calendar year, as a whole, was an enormous disappointment for the 25-year-old Texas superstar. Putting yips plagued his early season, but with all the energy spent in fixing that even a little, the rest of his game would later suffer.
Over the course of the year he dropped from No. 2 in the Official World Golf Rankings to a pedestrian (by his standards) 17th – the worst ranking of his career since prior to the 2015 season when he won two majors.
After placing third at The Masters in April, Spieth notched just one top-10 the rest of the season – a T9 at The Open Championship where he imploded on Sunday after holding the 54-hole lead. In 2017 he earned $9.4 million. In 2018, that number dropped all the way to $2.7 million.
In the new season, Spieth has played just two events, finishing T55 in one and missing the cut in the other. It is not clear how intense his offseason has been, but he has a reputation as a hard worker, and it would be surprising to see him come into the week unprepared.
The consensus is that Spieth will be back, and probably soon, but nobody knows for sure when. He has played Waialae well in the past, placing T18 last year with four rounds in the 60s. He was a career best solo-third the year prior.
3. JT Back For More
One man who will not be cold arriving Maui is Justin Thomas, the man often seen as Spieth’s main rival. Thomas had a spot at Kapalua for the Sentry, and he played tremendously, using a final-round 8-under 65 to finish in solo third.
For the week, Thomas led the field in strokes gained: approach-the-green and strokes gained: tee-to-green. He was also second in driving accuracy and fourth in greens in regulation.
Of the other 143 players who are set to tee up at the Sony this week, approximately all 143 should be scared of how dialed-in Thomas was with his irons last week. None of them have forgotten that JT was the man who, two years again at Waialae, opened with a 59.
The 59 led to rounds of 64-65-65 which added up to a 253 that is not just the course record, but the all-time lowest four-round score in PGA Tour history.
In his championship defense, Thomas was not quite as stellar, finishing T14, but the Thomas from last week appeared more reminiscent of his mammoth 2017 version.
As a whole, 2018 was another great season for Thomas. He won another three events, in addition to carding seven other top-10s in 23 events. He led the Tour in earnings with $8.7 million, and his scoring average was third best, barely trailing only Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson.
Thomas reached No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, finishing the season at his current position of fourth. None of the three higher-ranking players are at Waialae are in attendance, so there is little doubt of who the man to beat this week is. His initials are JT.
4. Via Kapalua
Only 33 players were in the field at last week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, but many of those are going to have the benefit of riding momentum into this week’s Sony Open. The most significant momentum should come from Gary Woodland, who finished second at the event.
It is shocking that Woodland did not land in the winner’s circle, he had a three stroke lead coming into Sunday, shot a bogey-free 5-under 68, and STILL did not place first, as Xander Schauffele’s ridiculous 11-under 62 usurped him from five strokes back to begin the day.
Woodland should still be thrilled with the current state of his game, however, as he has four top 10s in five starts to the new season, including two solo runner-ups.
In addition to Woodland and Justin Thomas, Marc Leishman is in the Sony field after placing T4 at Kapalua.
Leishman has a recent PGA Tour win as well, taking October’s CIMB Classic. Bryson DeChambeau, who has three wins in his last six PGA Tour starts, might be the hottest player at Waialae. He took seventh last week. Cameron Champ has been on fire as well, with a win and three top-11s in his last four starts.
Charles Howell III could be the most intriguing of all. He recently ended a decade-long winning drought, and has played the Sony for each of the past 17 editions, with two runner-ups among a number of top five finishes.