Sony Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
THE SONY OPEN is the first full-field event of 2022 on the PGA Tour and this year’s edition will have to go some to come anywhere close to the drama served up in Hawaii 12 months ago, when Kevin Na came from three shots behind with six holes to play for a one-shot victory with a birdie on the final hole.
But the event was all about Chris Kirk. The American stepped away from the game in May 2019 because of alcoholism and depression, a decision he believes saved his life, his family and his career. He was playing the final event of a medical extension the PGA Tour awarded him for lost time, and he delivered a 65 to finish one shot behind.
The birdie on the final hole gave him enough points to regain full status, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. "It totally changes everything being able to be back to picking my schedule like I'm used to over the last number of years," Kirk said. "To go into a week and say I've got to finish top three to keep going and do is silly. I'm thankful God put me in a great situation, and you never know what's going to happen."
Na looked to be out of it when he missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the 11th and then three-putted for bogey from 40 feet on the 12th to fall three shots behind Brendan Steele.
He bounced back with three straight birdies, Steele faltered at Waialae for the second straight year, and Na delivered the winning shot with a five wood from the rough that went just over the back of the green on the par-5 18th, leaving him a simple up-and-down for birdie and a a 5-under 65.
"I was playing maybe a little bit more aggressive coming down the stretch, not worrying so much about second or third, more focused on just that - winning," Na said. "Every year, I hope to win and I expect to win on the right golf courses."
Kirk and Joaquin Niemann (66) finished one shot behind, and it only felt good to one of them. Niemann was runner-up for the second straight week in Hawaii. He finished the two Hawaii events at 45-under par without a trophy to show for it.
"Just another good week, so happy for that," Niemann said.
Na collected his fifth career victory on the PGA Tour. Na, who turned pro out of high school, didn't win until his eighth season. It was seven more seasons until he won again. Now he's up to four seasons in a row and was desperately unlucky not to have been made the US Ryder Cup team.
“Experience is the reason why I've been winning," he said. "When you do it again, you know it seems like the next one comes easier. I think more about winning since I've been winning more often."
It was hard to think that way when he was running out of time. From the rough left of the 13th, he hit his approach into just under 15 feet for the first of three straight birdies.
As for Brendan Steele, it was another year of disappointment in paradise, this one more of a slow leak. In 2020, Steele had a two-shot lead with two to play and wound up losing in a playoff. This time, he made an 18-foot eagle putt on the ninth hole to take a three-shot lead into the back nine.
He hit driver on the 355-yard 10th and didn't quite clear a bunker, leaving an awkward lie. He put his wedge on the front of the green some 80 feet away and three-putted. His game was so tentative the rest of the way that he didn't have a birdie chance inside 30 feet until the 17th hole. That was from 10 feet to tie for the lead, and he missed that.
Steele also failed to birdie the 18th and closed with a 69.
"Totally changed the momentum," Steele said about his bogey on the 10th. "Every single shot I hit after that ended up with a weird lie. I think you just have to really take some positives out of this. Hard to see for me right now."
Webb Simpson matched the low score of the final round with a 64 and tied for fourth along with Steele and Marc Leishman, shot shot 30 on the back nine.
Na finished at 21-under 259 and went on to enjoy a stellar year. After finishing third at the Tour Championship, he was so bullish about his chances of being selected to the US Ryder Cup team that he said he was going to text Captain Steve Stricker and state his case.
“I did. I texted and called him,” Na said. “We had a good talk.”
Stricker’s call the next day was not so good. “He called me Monday and said, ‘I don’t have good news,” Na said. “You didn’t get picked.’"
“It sucks. It’s disappointing. He has a tough job. I don’t take it personal. No one deserves anything. It’s a captain’s call. I respect his decision. Do I disagree? Yeah, I disagree,” he said. “I just have to play better.”
But Na, who finished 19th in the Ryder Cup points standings, said: “How much better could I have played?” And he has a point. He finished tied second at the John Deere Classic, lost in a playoff at the Wyndham Championship, was tied eighth at the Northern Trust, and finished third at the Tour Championship, where he played the final 57 holes bogey-free and tied Jon Rahm for the low 72-hole aggregate.
“It didn’t matter what happened at the Tour Championship. Stricker already had his mind set,” Na said. “I think it would have been great if I played for the team. I think I could have really brought some good energy and I could’ve really contributed and disappointing that I didn't get the chance to do that.”
Cameron Smith may well have the worst haircut on the PGA Tour but the Australian is a hugely gifted golfer with a good record in Hawaii. He played superbly at the Tournament of Champions and he won this tournament two years ago and enjoyed a fabulous season last year, winning once, finishing second twice and enjoying eight top-10 finishes as he ended the campaign in 14th place in the FedEx Cup standings. Smith is a big-time player - he finished second in The Masters in 2020 and was tied 10th last year.
Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama is looking to win his third title in less than 12 months and this is a course that should suit him. During the 2020-21 season he won The Masters and two runners-up finishes and he began the new season by winning the ZOZO Championship and finishing sixth at the Fortinet Championship, so he is a man in form.
This is a big year for Matt Kuchar. A former winner here, he has been one of the most consistent players on the PGA Tour for many years but he missed 12 cuts last season, had just four top 25 finishes and finished 122nd in the FedEx Cup standings. And he started the new season poorly too. Although he made the cut in all four tournaments in which he played, his best finish was a tie for 22nd. Kuchar has never been a big hitter, building his career on an ability to keep the ball in play, finding lots of greens in regulation and holing putts - lots of them.
The Sony Open was won in 2015 by Jimmy Walker, in 2016 by Fabian Gomez, in 2017 by Justin Thomas, in 2018 by Patton Kazzire, in 2019 by Matt Kuchar, in 2020 by Cameron Smith and in 2021 by Kevin Na.
Waialae Country Club opened in 1927. It was designed by Seth Raynor, measures 7,125 yards and is a par 70. The fairways are lined with palm trees and there are a lot of bunkers. The course boasts jaw-dropping ocean views. Expect to see some very low scores.
Hideki Matsuyama has continued the fine form that secured The Masters for him in April, adding the ZOZO Championship this season. The Japanese golfer has few weaknesses and when he putts well he takes some beating. Kevin Na will return bursting with confidence and still smarting from being overlooked by Steve Stricker for the Ryder Cup. Na has overcome many obstacles - you will remember that not so very long ago he would freeze over the golf ball, unable to pull the trigger. But he has worked incredibly hard on the mental side of the game and is now actually one of the quickest players on Tour - and the results have followed. Don’t be surprised to see him contend again. And Cameron Smith will be looking to continue the sparkling form he demonstrated at the Tournament of Champions.
Hideki Matsuyama. Should be right at home here
Kevin Na. After Ryder Cup disappointment, has an eye on securing Presidents Cup place
Players to Follow:
Hideki Matsuyama. Has every shot in the book
Kevin Na. No shortage of confidence
Billy Horschel. Class act
Cameron Smith. Former winner who is living up to his potential at last
Jimmy Walker. Restored to full health and looking to recapture past glories
Stewart Cink. Determined to prove that last season was not a one-off
Patton Kizzire. Beautiful golf swing
Christiaan Bezuidenhout. It’s only a matter of time before he makes the breakthrough
Webb Simpson. Looking to get things back on track
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