Sony Open Preview, Picks & Analysis

By: | Mon 06 Jan 2020 | Comments

Matt Kuchar returns to Hawaii to defend his Sony Open title, hoping that there will be rather less heat on him than there was 12 months ago, when he was still fending off criticism for failing to pay a local caddie the full rate after his victory in the Mayakoba Classic. Kuchar had a funny old time of it last season - there were a couple of victories and a host of near-misses, but he also found himself being panned after a row involving Sergio Garcia (who else?) and a tiny missed putt at the WGC Match Play, and there were also veiled hints that he may have cheated.

It actually couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy - seriously. Your columnist happens to know that Kuchar is one of the most popular players on the PGA Tour, a selfless man who has given millions to charity. So let us hope that he can simply get back to business in 2020.

He very nearly threw away the Sony Open 12 months ago but overcame three early bogeys that cost him the lead with flawless golf and two birdies on the back nine to close with a 66 and win in Hawaii for his second PGA Tour title of the season. He defeated Andrew Putnam by four shots, but it wasn’t as easy as that may sound.

Having made only one bogey through 54 holes to build a two-shot lead, Kuchar had three bogeys in his opening five holes on the final day and fell one shot behind Putnam, and he had to make a 10-foot birdie putt at the turn to avoid falling two adrift. Kuchar caught him with an aggressive pitch up the slope on the par-4 10th hole. They remained tied with five holes to play when Putnam made bogey from a deep bunker left of the 14th green, and Kuchar made a pair of 12-foot birdie putts on the next two holes to seize control.

All of a sudden, Kuchar led by three, meaning he could relax as he played the par-five 18th hole. Kuchar became the first multiple winner on the PGA Tour last season, having earlier ended a drought of more than four years when he captured the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico. It was only the second time in his career Kuchar has won twice in the same season. He won the Match Play Championship and the Memorial in 2013.

He finished at 22-under 258, the third-lowest total in Waialae history behind the record of 253 by Justin Thomas in 2017 and Jimmy Walker's 72-hole score of 257 when he won in 2015. Putnam, who won his first PGA Tour title at the Barracuda Championship, didn't blink until that approach into the bunker that led to his lone bogey, and he couldn't make enough putts to stay close to Kuchar the rest of the way. He closed with a 68 and moved into the top 50 in the world for the first time in his career.

Corey Conners of Canada, who was a Monday qualifier, had a 64-64 weekend and was among four players who tied for third, though none had a serious chance of challenging what amounted to a two-player race at the top. But it was a huge week for Conners, who narrowly missed a full PGA Tour card in 2018. And he has gone on to establish himself as a regular on Tour. Marc Leishman (64), Hudson Swafford (64) and Chez Reavie (67) also finished in a tie for third.

Davis Love III, who first played the Sony Open in 1986, missed by one shot matching the lowest 72-hole score of his career. His rounds of 64 and 65 at the weekend gave him a tie for seventh, but the tournament belonged to Kuchar, who won for the ninth time in his career. He ended the 2018 season earlier than he wanted, failing to reach the Tour Championship for the first time since 2009 and ending his streak of playing on eight straight teams in the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup - something he put right in 2019 when he qualified for Tiger Woods’ Presidents Cup team.

He won again in Mexico in a Sunday much tighter than he would have preferred, and had a few nervous moments at the start at Waialae. He went long of the second green, leading to bogey. The other two were sloppy - a three-putt across the back of the fourth green, and a wedge into No. 5 that he was begging to get down as soon as it left his club. It hopped into the back bunker, and he missed an 8-foot par putt to lose the lead.

From there, however, Kuchar had a birdie chance on the final 13 holes. Kuchar and Putnam were in a bunker short of the green on the par-5 ninth. Putnam went first and it rolled out to 2 inches for birdie. Kuchar came out weakly, but made the 10-foot birdie putt. They traded birdies on the 12th and 13th, and Kuchar took over from there.

"It was so uncharacteristic of me," Kuchar said, referring to his three-putt and bad wedge on No. 5. "But I kept plugging along, and I knew good things were going to happen. To win two out of three is crazy to comprehend.”

Last season's Barracuda Championship winner Collin Morikawa will have a huge amount of support, as many of his family live on Maui and he visited Hawaii many times while growing up.

But if you are looking for a man who is really at home here then look no further than Justin Thomas. The American adores Hawaii, going a combined 101 under at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and Sony Open in Hawaii since 2017. He has the 36-hole, 54-hole, and 72-hole records at Waialae.

Kuchar, meanwhile, is aiming  to become the fifth golfer in Sony Open history to defend his title after Hubert Green (1978-79), Corey Pavin (1986-87), Ernie Els (2003-04), and Jimmy Walker (2014-15).

It was won in 2014 and 2015 by Jimmy Walker, in 2016 by Fabian Gomez, in 2017 by Justin Thomas, in 2018 by Patton Kizzire and last year by Kuchar.

Sony Open Picks

To Win:

Justin Thomas. Adores this part of the world

Each Way:

Matt Kuchar. Always there or thereabouts

Sony Open Fantasy Picks

Justin Thomas. It’s hard to see beyond him

Matt Kuchar. Will surely make a decent fist of defending title

Colin Morikawa. Will have huge local support

Brendon Todd. Walking on air

Corey Conners. Where it all really began for him

Russell Henley. Formidable competitor

Patton Kizzire. Good memories

Hideki Matsuyama. Japan’s finest

Marc Leishman. Everybody’s favourite Aussie

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