Sony Open Preview: Examining Thomas’ trajectory

January 8, 2020
Justin Ray

No two career arcs are identical, even when the starting points seem similar. Case in point: longtime rivals and friends Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.

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Born 90 days apart in 1993, Thomas was largely referred to on television broadcasts as Jordan’s ‘friend’ as he initially ascended the professional ranks. Cue the famous junior golf hamburger-eating photo of the pair.

When Spieth became the youngest two-time major champion since Gene Sarazen at the 2015 U.S. Open, JT didn’t even qualify for the tournament, and sat at 84th in the World Ranking. When Jordan won the 2017 Open Championship to reach eleven PGA Tour wins (and three majors), Thomas sat at four victories – an ascending talent, but a player who had yet to reach his supernova potential.

We may be seeing him find that cosmic peak.

In Maui last week, Thomas (12 wins) passed Spieth (still at 11) as the player with the most PGA Tour victories by a player currently in his 20s. And while JT’s ‘youngest since’ achievements throughout his career have all featured lists where he was preceded by his buddy Spieth, he’s finally found one where Jordan is absent: Thomas is one of just four players in the last 85 years to reach 12 PGA Tour wins before age 27, joining Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

The two will inevitably be tied together throughout their careers – something neither of them likely mind too much, considering the enormous amount of success they have had so far.

For Thomas, his past success at this week’s venue – Waialae Country Club – suggests he’ll be at the top of betting lists for the Sony Open. JT has the best scoring average of any player at Waialae over the last 30 years (66.6) among players with 12 or more rounds played. He is a combined 62-under-par there the last five years, tied with Chez Reavie for the best cumulative score during that stretch. Oh, and he’s won three of his last six official PGA Tour starts.

 

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

The average winning score to par at this event the previous seven years is -21.4. It’s not just birdies, either: this course has ranked in the top-four on the PGA Tour in number of eagles yielded each of the previous four seasons.

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Strokes gained putting has been a more significant statistic when it comes to winning the Sony Open compared to other events on the PGA Tour. Since 2005, winners have had an average field rank in that stat better than fifth:

Strokes gained putting – PGA Tour winners since 2005

Sony Open: 4.9 average rank, 67% of winners ranked in top-5

All other events: 13.8 average rank, 40% of winners ranked in top-5

One could surmise that an ‘easier’ ball-striking layout, or just a shorter golf course (Waialae was just 7,044 yards on the card in 2019) evens the playing field tee-to-green, making putting more significant. The average proximity on approach shots from the fairway for the field at last year’s Sony Open was just 28’3”, third-easiest on the Tour all season.

 

NOTES ON PLAYERS COMPETING THIS WEEK

– Even before he won the 2019 Sony Open, Matt Kuchar was a certified course horse at Waialae: from 2011 through 2016, Kuchar finished no worse than T-13 there and had a scoring average of 66.9. The veteran will try to rediscover his strong early-season form from last year; he does not have a top-ten in any of his previous 12 worldwide starts.

– It’s January, so you know what that means: it’s Charles Howell III season. The veteran has long been a stalwart on the Tour’s west coast swing, but his early-year successes aren’t limited to California. Since making his debut at the Sony Open in 2002, no player has more top-ten finishes in the event than Charles does (10). 31 of his last 32 rounds at Waialae CC have been in the 60s. And of the more than fifty players with 40 or more rounds at the Sony Open since 1990, only Marc Leishman and Paul Azinger have averaged more birdies per round.

– Since the Tournament of Champions moved to Maui, 15 of the 21 players to win the Sony Open have played on Maui the previous week. There are 21 players in the field at Waialae who fit that bill.

Corey Conners, who turned a Monday qualifying bid into a T-3 finish here last year, is one of those 21. The Canadian was one of just two players last season to rank in the top-ten in both strokes gained off-the-tee and strokes gained approach (Paul Casey is the other).

– The European Tour kicks back into gear this week with the South African Open. Defending champion Louis Oosthuizen will try to become the fourth player since 1950 to win the event back-to-back, joining fellow major winners Bobby Locke, Gary Player and Trevor Immelman.

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– Speaking of South Africa, one interesting player in the field this week is Erik Van Rooyen. Ranked 48th in the world this week, Erik nearly made the International Presidents Cup team in 2019 and will play in his first Masters this April. Only three players averaged more birdies per round on the European Tour last season than Van Rooyen did: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Sam Horsfield. He made an enormous leap with the putter, jumping from 112th in strokes gained putting in 2018 to 10th last season.

 

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Since the PGA Tour started tracking it in 2004, there have been four seasons where a player averaged 1.5 strokes gained approach or more per round. They all belong to Tiger Woods (2006, 2007, 2009, 2013).