After an exciting week (and eventful finish) to the year’s first event, the PGA Tour stays in Hawaii for the Sony Open. It’s time to head to Oahu and Waialae Country Club, which has hosted the tournament for all 55 years of its existence.
For many players this marks the first start of the new year, while some decorated holdovers will make the short trip from Maui. With topics ranging from a red-hot winner to slumping veterans and one particular course horse, here are four questions to ponder as the Aloha swing continues:
What can JT do for an encore?
Three years ago Justin Thomas captured the Sentry Tournament of Champions, hopped a short flight to Oahu and put an opening-round 59 on the board at Sony. It was the start of what turned into a career year, complete with five wins including a major. This time around, Thomas returns to Honolulu after surviving a chaotic playoff at Kapalua for his third win in his last seven starts. His form may not be quite as red-hot as it was back in 2017, but it’s probably not that far off, either. Another strong performance would only further stamp Thomas’ name as one to watch as the new year gets underway – even if he doesn’t break 60 this time around.
Did this week’s winner play last week?
There might not be two Tour venues more disparate than Kapalua and Waialae: one is a sprawling, hilly landscape where drives can push 400 yards while the other is a cozy, flat layout where players can almost leave the driver at home. But there’s been a significant correlation in recent years as each of the last six winners of the Sony Open started their year the week before at Kapalua. It’s not exactly a fair fight, given that a spot at the Sentry means you played well enough to win an event the previous year, but it’s something to keep an eye on as 21 of the 34 players from last week are in the Sony field. The last time the trophy went to a player who wasn’t in Maui the week prior? That would be 2013, when Russell Henley won in his first start as a rookie.
Can two former champs get back on track?
Zach Johnson and Jimmy Walker have several traits in common. They’re both former major champs, both north of 40 years old and both former winners at the Sony: Johnson in 2009, while Walker went back-to-back in 2014-15. But the two also return to Hawaii in the midst of similar slides, as they both missed the FedExCup playoffs entirely last season. Johnson has fallen outside the top 200 in the world and is more than a year removed from his last top-10 finish, while Walker hasn’t completed 72 holes since the Rocket Mortgage Classic in June and will be making his first start since the Sanderson Farms Championship nearly four months ago.
Is this the year CH III gets over the hump?
Charles Howell III has had success at Waialae. A ton of success, actually: 10 top-10 finishes in 18 prior appearances, with only one over-par round since 2012. It’s a set of credentials that could set him up to run for mayor of Honolulu down the road, but there’s a conspicuous asterisk involved: despite his affinity for the venue, Howell has not yet won the event, coming closest in 2012 when he tied for second. Consistent play not translating into victories is nothing new for Howell, who hasn’t played since a missed cut in defense of his RSM Classic title. But he would love nothing more than to finally get his name on the trophy after feasting on Waialae for nearly 20 years, and coming off a fall that included four top-20 finishes there’s ample reason to think this might (finally) be his week.