Sony Open 2021 picks: Should you believe in Webb Simpson?

Hennessey and Powers  

Cliff Hawkins

As if you didn’t know picking winners was hard enough already, Harris English won the Sentry Tournament of Champions last week. Yes, the same Harris English who a number of our experts picked to win outright numerous times in 2020, only to never be rewarded. Fittingly, he finally won a tournament you usually have to qualify for via victory the previous season, and not one of us pegged the former Georgia Bulldog to get it done. That’s the way it goes, unfortunately.
Don’t fret, folks, the winners are coming—and we always have good vibes at the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club, hosting the event for a 51st consecutive year. It’s the fourth-longest serving tour event on tour (only to Augusta, Colonial and Pebble). This is also the first full field event of 2021, which means it might be the first week of your season-long fantasy contest—and it also means there will be a wide array of betting options (if you’re not in on the Top 20 After Round 1 bets yet, you’re slacking).
The Sony Open field is noticeably weaker than last week, highlighted by Webb Simpson, Daniel Berger, Collin Morikawa, Hideki Matsuyama and TOC winner Harris English. Simpson is a curious case study this week. He finished in the top five in his last two appearances at Waialae (2020 and 2018). But Webb lost more than six strokes off the tee last week at Kapalua—one of his three worst showings off the tee in the past five years, per our data scientist Rick Gehman's golf database.
So was that an anomaly? Can you trust Webb's longer-term stats, which make him the clear favourite at Waialae. That's one of the questions we help you answer as our expert panel breaks down the 2021 Sony Open field.
Sony Open 2021 picks: Our Experts’ Outright Predictions
Anonymous Caddie Picker of the week: Webb Simpson (11-1) — This is a paradise for a shotmaker and a putter. Webb Simpson is both of those things. This is a weaker field than, say, RBC Heritage—where he got his last win. We know he loves it here, and it’d be surprising if he doesn’t contend again this year.
Pat Mayo, DraftKings/Fantasy National, Mayo Media Network analyst: Ryan Palmer (33-1) — A former winner of this event, albeit a decade ago, Palmer is about as close the peak of his powers as he’s ever been at the moment. He’s now up to 25th in the world rankings. He wilted Sunday at the TOC—but it was more putting-related than anything, and frankly, much like English last week, if you looked at his results and stats without the name “Ryan Palmer” next to them, he’d be an auto bet at this price.
Brandon Gdula, FanDuel/numberFire managing editor: Daniel Berger (15-1) — I liked Berger last week at longer odds, but he’s now in favorite territory, but not much has changed with four extra rounds in his profile. Berger is in the 93rd percentile or better in this field in adjusted strokes gained/tee to green and approach since the start of 2020, according to datagolf. He’s also an accurate driver and a good Bermuda putter. I’m going to stick with him despite liking a few other names at the top.
Rick Gehman, data scientist and founder: Webb Simpson (11-1) — Simpson played about as poorly as he could have possibly played last week in Maui and still finished T-17. He lost a staggering 6.58 strokes off the tee, which was not only the worst in the field, but also the worst single driving tournament for Simpson in the entire database at However, he finished fifth in strokes gained/approach, which helped him salvage his results. Simpson won’t have to rely on the driver as much at Waialae, which is flat and much shorter than the Plantation Course. He can rely on the rest of his game to improve on his third-place and T-4 finishes in his past two trips to the Sony Open.
Stephen Hennessey, Golf Digest dep. managing editor: Sungjae Im (18-1) — If you were paying attention on Monday, you could’ve scooped up Sungjae at 22-1. That value’s gone, but hey—if you think Sungjae’s a good bet at 22-1, how much of a difference is it? Per Fantasy National, Sungjae gained 9.2 strokes/tee to green last week and 5.2 strokes on his approaches. On Kapalua’s complex greens, he lost 3.2 strokes/putting, a stat that’s bound to regress to the mean. The South Korean star is 13th in this field in strokes gained/putting over the past 100 rounds, per Fantasy National. That’s more like what I’d expect from Sungjae this week.
Christopher Powers, Golf Digest assistant editor: Kevin Kisner (30-1) — It’s probably dumb to start chasing a Kisner win, because it might not come until March at the Match Play, but screw it. I’m still hurting from that RSM playoff loss, and I’m sure he is too. He’s one of the few guys who played last week, so he’s prepared for the windy conditions at Waialae, where he has a strong record (4th in ‘20; 4th in ‘17; 5th in ‘16). He’s been closing in on a fourth career victory since July thanks to some steady approach play and a hot putter, as is tradition. At 30-1, I’m still firmly aboard the Kiz train.
Lee Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Russell Henley (35-1) — Henley comes into this event ranked first in strokes gained/tee to green and Opportunities Gained over the past three months. He is also one of the best putters in the field on Bermuda too, ranking 10th for SG/putting on Bermuda greens.
Results from last season: Golf Digest's betting panel predicted 14 winners correctly last season, and collectively on outright winners, top-10 bets and matchups won and lost, our panel went up 225.30 units (the equivalent of being up €2,253 if you wagered €10 on all of our bets) last season. Our anonymous tour caddie nailed Viktor Hovland (25-1) to finish 2020 strong. Also at the end of last year, Brandon Gdula of numberFire/FanDuel correctly picked Patrick Cantlay last week at the Zozo Championship (30-1) and giving Christopher Powers predicted Bryson DeChambeau (28-1 at the U.S. Open)—picking up the momentum we had in the 2019-’20 season. Be sure to check this column every week for picks from the hottest betting panel in golf!
Sony Open 2021 picks: Sleepers/Dark Horses Who Could Win
Caddie: Cameron Davis (100-1) — The hype was very real on Cameron Davis in 2020. He’s a streaky player because he’s more of a bomb-and-gouge type of player. But he’s also a shotmaker and can get super hot. He finished ninth here a year ago … I really love him earning his first win here.
Mayo: Sebastian Munoz (55-1) — Munoz fits the narrative of players who played in the TOC, and not only did he play, but he was one of the best players in the field, improving his ball striking every day.
Gdula: Talor Gooch (90-1) — Gooch is a balanced golfer, which helps a lot in a scoring fest where anyone can win. He’s also around field average in fairways hit and Bermuda putting, which are some vital stats for the week. He’s just a better golfer than the price indicates.
Gehman: Sebastian Munoz (55-1) — Munoz played himself out of the Tournament of Champions on Thursday by carding an opening-round 75 (2-over). Instead of packing it in and enjoying his time in Maui, Munoz went nuts over the final three days, playing the final 54 holes in 18 under par. That aggregate score over the last three days was second best in the field, behind only Joaquin Niemann, who lost in a playoff to Harris English. If he can carry that form into Honolulu, Munoz is certainly a viable contender to pick up his second PGA Tour victory.
Hennessey, Golf Digest: Zach Johnson (45-1) — Believe it or not, ZJ is third in Fantasy National’s “Good Drives Gained” stat, which predicts how often a player hits the green from their tee shots. You wouldn’t expect a short knocker like ZJ to rank that high in this field. He’s also eighth in strokes gained on par 4s in his past 50 rounds, and third in strokes gained/putting. This is all a recipe for success for ZJ at a course he’s won before. He’s trending in the right direction, and after he contended at RSM, it feels like he could yet again.
Powers, Golf Digest: Marc Leishman (66-1) — Pre-COVID Leish appeared to be back last week, particularly on approach, where he gained 3.8 strokes, and tee to green, where he gained 4.3 strokes. The putting, however, was abysmal (the Aussie ranked 40th out of 42 players in SG/putting). I’ll bet on a bounce back on the greens at Waialae, where he has two top-five finishes since 2014 and has made the cut in all 11 of his appearances.
Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Marc Leishman (66-1) — His game—if it's back to pre-quarantine form—suits this course perfectly, ranking 10th in FanShare's course-suitability ranking.
Sony Open 2021 picks: Players to Fade This Week (who will disappoint)
Caddie: Hideki Matsuyama (22-1) — This seems pretty easy—he has just one top-25 finish in eight previous appearances, and he is coming off one of his worst putting performances of his career (and DANG, he was bad). He’ll get it worked out, but you won’t get my money this week.
Mayo: Abraham Ancer (25-1) — Ancer has started to get the Tony Finau treatment. He’s priced like he’s won multiple times despite that not being the case. Ancer will eventually get his win—hell, it could be this week! But I’m just not comfortable betting him this high up the board. Last week his T-17 was almost entirely putting-related. He’s a good putter, but gaining 6.1 strokes on the greens won’t even be enough if you can’t hit an iron at Sony.
Gdula: Hideki Matsuyama (22-1) — Hideki was my fade pick last week, but I’m there again. He actually lost strokes tee to green at the Tournament of Champions but more importantly lost 9.7 strokes from putting, according to FantasyNational. The tee-to-green game is so good, but you can’t win when you putt yourself out of contention.
Gehman: Hideki Matsuyama (22-1) — I’ve always been a proponent for “Team No Putt,” which is the idea that great ball-strikers who are poor putters will prevail if given enough opportunity. After watching Matsuyama for four days in Maui, I’m starting to re-think that stance. He lost an appalling 9.74 strokes putting, which was three shots worse than the next worst putter (Mackenzie Hughes). I’d normally expect a bounce back—but those numbers are so bad that he could be lost on the greens—and no amount of practice in the next few days is going to change that. I’ll need to see signs of life from Matsuyama before investing.
Hennessey, Golf Digest: Hideki Matsuyama (22-1) — The guy burned me in DFS lineups and top-10 bets last week, so I’m very familiar with how poorly he putted (see Gehman’s stats above). I’m off Hideki, especially here, where he can drive it into some trouble.
Powers, Golf Digest: Harris English (13-1) — As a closet Dawgs fan, nobody was happier for Harris English than me last week. But a natural letdown is expected here, especially after he had been knocking on the door for so long.
Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Collin Morikawa (15-1) — Morikawa is brilliant tee-to-green but his putting on bermuda is alarming. He ranks 117th in the field this week for SG/putting on bermuda losing 0.7 shots per round to Webb Simpson statistically. That means he is almost giving Simpson a three-shot head start.

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