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Stat attack!: Sony Open statistical preview

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Every April we hear how difficult it is for a golfer to win the Masters on his first try. After all, it hasn’t happened since Fuzzy Zoeller won in his debut in 1979. Last June marked the 100th anniversary of the last time a player, in this case Francis Ouimet, won the U.S. Open in his tournament debut. But we never read about how hard it is to accomplish that feat at most PGA Tour events.

Consider this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii. When Russell Henley won last year by shooting three 63s en route to a tournament-record 24-under 256 and a three-stroke victory over Tim Clark, he became the first player to win at Waialae in his first start in the tournament since Bruce Lietzke in 1977. The only other player to win the Sony Open in his first start was Gay Brewer in 1965, the tournament’s debut season.

Sony Open first-time winners

Russell Henley 2013
Bruce Lietzke 1977
Gay Brewer 1965

But the 2013 Sony was more than Henley’s tournament debut; it was his PGA Tour debut as a professional. After making the cut as an amateur in the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open, Henley turned pro and joined the Web.com Tour in 2012, finishing third on the money list to earn his PGA Tour card for 2013. Henley was, quite literally, a seasoned professional by the time he won last year at Waialae, but he did become the first player to win in his first start as an official Tour member since Henrik Stenson in the 2007 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

How Henley won was even more impressive. His record-setting 24-under 256 was four strokes lower than the previous aggregate of 260 set by John Huston in 1998 and matched by Brad Faxon three years later. Also, his rounds of 63-63-67-63 made him one of eight players in the last 20 years to shoot three rounds of 64 or lower in the same tournament. Henley was one of five to turn his trick on a par-70 course, while Cook’s came at a par-71 course and Laird and Sabbatini accomplished it at par-72 venues.

Players with three rounds of 64 or lower in the same event since 1993

2013 Sony Open Russell Henley 63-63-67-63 Won
2011 Travelers Championship Ryan Moore 64-70-64-63 T-2
2008 Wyhdham Championship Martin Laird 63-70-64-63 T-4
2007 Tour Championship Tiger Woods 64-63-64-66 Won
2003 Texas Open Tommy Armour III 64-62-63-65 Won
2001 Las Vegas Invitational Rory Sabbatini 64-67-72-63-64 T-2
1996 FedEx St. Jude Classic John Cook 64-62-63-69 Won
1993 Hardee's Classic (John Deere) David Frost 68-63-64-64 Won

It’s worth noting that Henley is the only player on this list with three rounds of 63. That puts Henley in very select company. PGA Tour records are sketchy and incomplete, but only one other such week has been uncovered. At the 1954 Texas Open, Chandler Harper shot 70-63-63-63 at Brackenridge Park.

It would take an extraordinary effort for another first-time player to win at Sony, but there is one player in the field who would make that feat look pedestrian. Of course, we’re talking about Jordan Spieth, the 20-year-old Texan, who was runner-up at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions Monday for his fourth second-place finish in the last 12 months to go with his win at the John Deere Classic. He had never been to Maui before that finish, and now embarks on another new course. Although Waialae is quite different from Kapalua’s Plantation Course – much narrower fairways, much smaller greens – he has proven he can adapt to anything the Tour throws at him.

Spieth’s four runner-up finishes on Tour

2014 Hyundai Tournament of Champions One back of Zach Johnson
2013 Tour Championship Three back of Henrik Stenson
2013 Wyndham Championship Lost playoff to Patrick Reed
2013 Puerto Rico Open One back of Scott Brown

Meanwhile, in the last 30 years only two players have repeated at the Sony Open – Ernie Els in 2003-04 and Corey Pavin in 1986-87. That’s the long and the short of it. Henley, the 2013 champ, is somewhere in the middle. He’s not as long a hitter as Els in his prime, but not a relative bunter like Pavin. Henley was 83rd on Tour in driving distance in 2013 and averaged 293 yards off the tee at Waialae (T-22 for the week). He was T-8 in accuracy, second in greens in regulation and first in strokes gained-putting. Those ranks are about normal for the Sony winner. In the last eight years only one winner was in the top 10 in distance of all drives that week (Ryan Palmer, 2010) and every champion was in the top 12 in GIR. The accuracy rate for winners on Waialae’s notoriously tight fairways fluctuates. Three winners finished in the top three in fairways hit, while two others were ranked 50th and beyond.

Sony Open winners since 2006

Year Winner Distance rank (of all drives) Accuracy rank GIR rank
2013 Russell Henley T-22 T-8 2
2012 Johnson Wagner 65 T-56 T-10
2011 Mark Wilson 28 2 T-10
2010 Ryan Palmer 6 T-50 T-3
2009 Zach Johnson 60 T-3 T-12
2008 K.J. Choi 20 T-20 T-4
2007 Paul Goydos T-49 2 T-9
2006 David Toms T-23 T-9 T-2

In an effort to help fantasy golf players with their selections this week, here’s a look at some of the other players in the Sony Open field, starting with last year’s top-10 finishers.

Tim Clark: The runner-up a year ago, he also broke the previous tournament record, shooting 21-under 259 with a 63 on Sunday. He has not missed the cut in four previous starts and also finished second in 2011 with a final-round 64 to finish two back of Mark Wilson.

Charles Howell: Entering 2014 he has 20 consecutive rounds of par or better at Waialae. Howell has made 12 cuts in a row at Waialae (he did not play in 2006) with a best of T-5 in 2009.

Scott Langley: He was T-3 in 2013 in his tournament debut with an opening-round 62. He was tied for the lead after 54 holes but shot 70 Sunday.

Matt Kuchar: Making his 11th start at Waialae, Kuchar has made four cuts and has three top-10s. He was T-4 in 2002 and T-5 in 2011 and 2013. He played well last week at Kapalua, finishing T-6.

Chris Kirk: He has made the cut in his three previous starts but his T-5 a year ago was his only top-10. He was T-16 at Kapalua.

Brian Stuard: He was T-5 in 2013 after finishing T-25 in his only other appearance in 2010.

Jeff Overton: His eighth-place finish a year ago was his best in seven starts. It is his only top-10 at Waialae.

Dicky Pride: Making his 10th start, he has made three cuts with a best of T-9 in 2013.

Pat Perez: His T-9 last year was his third top-10 in 12 starts. He has made the cut 10 times.

Mark Leishman: He hasn’t finished outside the top 30 in four previous starts, but his T-9 a year ago remains his only top-10.

Harris English: His T-9 a year ago followed a T-67 in his 2012 debut. He was T-11 at Kapalua.


Here are the previous winners of the Sony Open in the field.

Wagner: The 2012 winner shot 13-under 267 to win by two over four players. However, he has made only one other cut at Waialae in six starts.

Wilson: The 2011 winner has made four cuts in eight starts.

Palmer: He won in 2010, beating Robert Allenby by one stroke with a birdie on the 18th hole. He has five cuts made in his previous eight starts.

Johnson: Last week’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions winner was the 2009 winner at Waialae, and has made six cuts in eight starts. The win remains his only top-10.

Choi: With nine cuts in 12 starts, the 2008 champ is the most recent Sony Open winner with another top-10 in the event. He was T-4 in 2007 and T-7 in 2002.

Goydos: The 2007 winner has made 10 cuts in 17 previous starts.

Vijay Singh: The 2005 champ has never missed the cut and has four top-10s in 16 previous starts.

Jerry Kelly: He won in 2002, beating John Cook by one for his first Tour victory. 


ONE FINAL NOTE: John Daly is in the Sony Open field, marking his first PGA Tour appearance of the 2013-14 season. Daly underwent elbow surgery in July and is playing this week on a non-exempt medical extension. He has one event to earn $551,940, which means he has to finish first or second at Waialae, or else he will have to play the rest of the season out of the Past Champions category.

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