Stat attack!: Sony Open statistical preview

By John AntoniniJanuary 8, 2014, 1:32 pm

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 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.

If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter at @johnantoninigc.

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After Further Review: Nelson lost in the shuffle?

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 21, 2018, 3:40 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the Nelson's future ...

If the goal was “different” by bringing the AT&T Byron Nelson to Trinity Forest, consider it achieved. But bringing a world-class field south of Dallas could still be tricky.

Yes, the tournament can always rely on local resident and AT&T spokesman Jordan Spieth to throw his hat in the ring. But even with Spieth strolling the fairways this week, the field strength was among the worst all season for a full-point event.

The debut of the sprawling, links-like layout likely did little to sway the undecideds, with only the third round offering the challenging conditions that course co-designer Ben Crenshaw had envisioned. And the schedule won’t do them any favors next year, as a revamped itinerary likely puts the Nelson right before the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.

The course will inevitably get better with age, and Spieth expects positive word of mouth to spread. But it might be a while before the stars truly align for an event that, for the moment, feels lost in the shuffle of a hectic schedule. – Will Gray

On Jordan Spieth's putting ...

Jordan Spieth’s putting is plainly bad right now, but it isn’t going to stay this bad forever.

He is the second ranked player on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, just like he was last year. This putting slump has lingered, but it’s unfathomable to think this guy just forgot how to putt.

Sooner rather than later he’s going to remember he’s Jordan Spieth and the 40-footers are going to start pouring in. He’ll be telling Greller to go get the ball because he’s too far away and the tee is in the other direction.

Bottom line, the ball striking is for real and the putting slump will pass. He’ll win soon – maybe even as soon as this week. – Nick Menta

On golf and gambling ...

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court over tuned a federal ban on sports betting in most states, a move the PGA Tour and many professional sports leagues embraced as a tool to both build fan interest and grow revenue.

Experts estimate sports betting could become a $150-$200 billion annual industry, and even a small piece of that could be significant for golf, but there will be risks.

Unlike any other sport, golf is played on multiple fields simultaneously, which inherently creates risks when gambling is introduced to the equation. Although the Tour has gone to great pains to head off any potential problems, like all bets gambling comes with great rewards, and great risks. – Rex Hoggard

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Wise continues whirlwind ascent with first win

By Will GrayMay 21, 2018, 3:13 am

DALLAS – Still shy of his 22nd birthday, Aaron Wise continues to prove himself to be a quick learner.

Wise went from unheralded prospect to NCAA individual champ seemingly in the blink of an eye while at the University of Oregon. After eschewing his final two years of eligibility in Eugene, he won in Canada on the Mackenzie Tour in his third start as a professional.

He continued a quick learning curve with a win last year on the Tour to propel him to the big leagues, and he didn’t flinch while going toe-to-toe with Jason Day two weeks ago, even though the result didn’t go his way.

Faced with another opportunity to take down a top-ranked Aussie, Wise made sure he got the job done Sunday at the AT&T Byron Nelson – even though it took until dark.

With mid-day rains turning a firm and fast layout into a birdie barrage, Wise seamlessly switched gears and put his first PGA Tour title on ice in impressive fashion with a bogey-free 65. Deadlocked with Marc Leishman to start the day, Wise made six birdies in his first 10 holes and coasted to a three-shot win as the leaders barely beat the setting sun to avoid an anticlimactic Monday finish at Trinity Forest Golf Club.

Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos

As it turned out, the hardest part of the day was enduring the four-hour weather delay alongside his mother, Karla, as his afternoon tee time turned into a twilight affair.

“She was talking to me in the hotel about what a win could mean, what a second could mean, kind of taking me through all that,” Wise said. “I was like, I’ve got to calm down. I can’t just sit here. I said, ‘You’ve got to go.’ I kind of made her leave the room.”

Wise displayed some jitters right out of the gates, with a nervy three-putt par on the opening hole. But with several players going on birdie runs to turn what seemed like a two-man race into a much more wide-open affair, Wise went on a tear of his own with four birdies in a row on Nos. 7-10.

That gave him a window over Leishman and the rest of the chase pack, and he never looked back.

“I talked to myself and kind of made myself trust my putting,” Wise said. “These greens out here are really tricky, and for me to roll those putts in on 8 and 9 really kind of separated things.”

Leishman had held at least a share of the lead after each round, and the 34-year-old veteran was looking for his third win in the last 14 months. But a bogey on No. 10 coincided with a Wise birdie to boost the rookie’s advantage from two shots to four, and Leishman never got closer than three shots the rest of the way.

“He holed putts he needed to hole, and I didn’t,” Leishman said. “Hit a couple loose shots where I could have probably put a bit of pressure on him, and didn’t. And that’s probably the difference in the end.”

Instead of sitting next to a trophy in Dallas, Wise could have been closing out his senior season next week with an NCAA appearance at Karsten Creek. But the roots of his quick climb trace back to the Master of the Amateurs in Australia in December 2015, a tournament he won and one that gave him confidence that he could hold his own against the best in the world. He returned to Eugene and promptly told his coach, Casey Martin, that he planned to turn pro in the spring.

The same dogged confidence that drove that decision has been the guiding force behind a whirlwind ascent through every rung of the professional ladder.

“I just have a lot of belief in myself. I didn’t come from a lot. A lot of people don’t know that. I didn’t get to travel a bunch when I played junior golf,” Wise said. “Kind of all along it’s been very, very few moments to shine and I have had to take advantage of them.”

Despite that belief, even Wise admits that he’s “shocked” to turn only his second real chance to contend at this level into a maiden victory. But fueled by the memories of a close call two weeks ago, he put the lessons learned at Quail Hollow to quick use while taking the next step in an increasingly promising career arc.

“It was awesome, everything I dreamed of,” Wise said. “To walk up 18, knowing I kind of had it locked up, was pretty cool.”

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Grace celebrates birthday with final-round 62

By Will GrayMay 21, 2018, 1:51 am

DALLAS – Branden Grace celebrated his 30th birthday in style, making the biggest charge of the final round at the AT&T Byron Nelson.

Grace closed out a 9-under 62 as the sun began to set at Trinity Forest Golf Club, moving from outside the top 10 into a share of third place, four shots behind Aaron Wise. It equaled Grace’s career low on the PGA Tour, which he originally set last summer at The Open, and it was one shot off Marc Leishman’s course-record 61 from the opening round.

“Good birthday present. It was fun,” Grace said. “Little bit of imagination, little bit of luck here and there. You get more luck on the links golf course than maybe on a normal golf course.”

Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos

Weeks after Grace’s wife gave birth to the couple’s first child, he now has his best result on the PGA Tour since winning the RBC Heritage more than two years ago. As a world traveler and former Presidents Cup participant, the South African embraced an opportunity this week to go off the beaten path on an unconventional layout.

“It feels like a breath of fresh air coming to something different. Really is nice. I really enjoyed the golf course,” he said. “Obviously I think we got really lucky with the weather, and that’s why the scores are so low. It can bite you if it settles in a little bit in the next couple years.”

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Scott barely misses qualifying for U.S. Open

By Will GrayMay 21, 2018, 1:33 am

DALLAS – A birdie on the 72nd hole gave Adam Scott a glimmer of hope, but in the end even a closing 65 at the AT&T Byron Nelson wasn’t enough to earn an exemption into next month’s U.S. Open.

Scott entered the week ranked No. 65 in the world, and the top 60 in next week’s rankings automatically qualify for Shinnecock Hills. The cutoff was a big reason why the 2008 tournament champ returned for Trinity Forest’s debut, and midway through the final round it seemed like the Aussie had a shot at snagging a bid at the 11th hour.

Scott needed at least a solo ninth-place finish to pass an idle Chesson Hadley at No. 60, and while his 5-footer on the 18th green gave him a share of sixth place when he completed play, he ultimately ended up in a three-way tie for ninth at 15 under – barely short of a spot in the top 60.

Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos

“I tried to make the most of really favorable conditions today, and I did a pretty good job of it. Just never really got a hot run going,” Scott said. “I feel like I struggled on the weekend reading the greens well enough to really get it going, but I think everyone but the leaders did that, too. They’re not the easiest greens to read.”

Scott has played each of the last three weeks in an effort to earn a U.S. Open exemption, and he’ll make it four in a row next week when he returns to the Fort Worth Invitational on a course where he won in 2013. Scott still has another chance to avoid sectional qualifying by earning a top-60 spot at the second and final cutoff on June 11 following the FedEx St. Jude Classic.

Scott has played 67 majors in a row, a streak that dates back to 2001 and is second only to Sergio Garcia among active players. While he’s prepared to play each of the next three weeks in a last-ditch effort to make the field, he’s taking his schedule one event at a time with the hope that one more good result might take care of business.

“I’ll play next week and hopefully play really well, and give myself a bit of cushion so I can take a week or so off and try to prepare the best I can for the U.S. Open,” Scott said.