The Sony Open in Hawaii may not be the biggest event on the PGA Tour schedule but it is one of professional golf’s quiet achievers.
It annually attracts a field that is strong without being stunning, is played on a course that is more interesting than it first appears and has a history dating back to 1965.
Played at Waialae Country Club every year since Gay Brewer lifted the trophy for the first time, it’s the kind of salt-of-the-earth event the game should do more to celebrate.
DEFENDING CHAMPION: Kevin Na was almost a non-starter last year after injuring a rib warming up for Wednesday’s pro-am but credited a diligent new (at the time) personal trainer for getting him ready to play Thursday.
RIGHT: Kevin Na claimed the 2021 staging of the Sony Open after a third round 61 shot him into contention. PHOTO: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.
The 38-year-old certainly showed no signs of discomfort over the 72 holes, particularly Saturday when a stunning nine-under 61 vaulted him within two of the lead and booked a place in the final group Sunday with Brendan Steele.
Still three behind with six to play, Na managed four birdies on his way to the clubhouse to not only overtake Steele but Joaquin Niemann and Chris Kirk as well.
It was Na’s fifth career victory.
COURSE: The Waialae Country Club is of interest to the architecture crowd since it is a Seth Raynor design from the 1920’s.
The famed architect drew up plans for the course but never saw it either during or after construction as he died before it was formally opened in 1927.
Much of Raynor’s original course has been lost over time but the appointment of Tom Doak as consulting architect in recent years has seen some move towards restoration.
Raynor was well known for incorporating ‘template’ holes into his designs and the most obvious that remains at Waialae is the par-3 17th, normally the 8th for members and guests, modelled on North Berwick’s famous Redan hole.
It has recently been restored by Doak’s team to bear a much closer resemblance to the original and is one of the few holes at the course to average over par for the Tour field (3.03 in 2021).
Short by modern standards at 7,044 yards (6,441 metres), Waialae offers little in the way of scoring resistance for a PGA Tour field unless there are unusually strong winds.
1999 was the last time the winner didn’t reach double digits under par with winning scores usually falling between 15- and 20-under-par.
Waialae plays to a par of 70 with just two par-5s at the ninth and 18th though both play well under their average with the ninth giving up birdies to 75 percent of the field and the 18th almost 60 percent.
What the course may lack in interest, however, it generally makes up for in leaderboard excitement with close finishes and plenty of players in contention over the closing stages the order of the day.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: With the late withdrawal of Bryson DeChambeau due to wrist soreness there will be 23 of last week’s tournament of Champions field teeing up this week and 17 of the world’s top-50 ranked golfers.
As a long-standing PGA Tour venue Waialae presents the sort of challenge you’d expect most in this field to excel at which makes singling out potential contenders a more difficult prospect.
However, while the test will be vastly different to Kapalua don’t rule out the chances of last week’s winner Cameron Smith, the champion here in 2020.
Assuming he’s not exhausted from shooting the lowest score to par in PGA Tour history, the Queenslander will be among the favourites this week.
Fellow Australian Marc Leishman might also be worth keeping an eye on after a good week at Kapalua, the Victorian a regular at Waialae and boasting three top-five finishes in 12 starts.
In fact, the entire Australian contingent might find this week to their liking with Matt Jones clearly in great form as is Cam Davis whose T10 finish – understandably – flew under the radar.
Outside of the contenders there are some interesting names among the exemption list with two in particular standing out.
World No.1 ranked amateur Keita Nakajima has earned a start as has former Asia Pacific Amateur winner Takumi Kanaya.
Kanaya has been particularly impressive since turning professional in late 2020 though has had little opportunity to show off his game internationally thanks to the pandemic.
He has two victories on the Japan Tour as a professional (and one as an amateur), the most recent coming in April where he beat Nakajima by a shot.
And finally it would be remiss not to mention Brendan Steele given his past two finishes here in Hawaii.
Steele lost a play-off to Cameron Smith in 2020 after taking a three-shot lead into the final round then missed out again last year after leading by two through 54 holes.
72-HOLE RECORD: 253 (-27, Justin Thomas, 2017)
18-HOLE RECORD: 59 (Justin Thomas, round 1, 2017)
PAST AUSSIE WINNERS: Bruce Crampton (1969), Brett Ogle (1994) and Cameron Smith (2020).
AUSTRALIANS IN THE FIELD: Cameron Smith, Marc Leishman, Matt Jones, Cameron Davis, Brett Drewitt, Cameron Percy.
Round 1: Friday (Fox Sports 503 11am –2.30pm)
Round 2: Saturday (Fox Sports 503 11am – 2.30pm)
Round 3: Sunday (Fox Sports 503 11am – 2.30pm)
Round 4: Monday (Fox Sports 503 10am – 2pm)
*AEDT, check local guides