The Sony Open in Hawaii is, for many golfers, the first PGA Tour event of the calendar year. There can be fewer better workplaces to return to after the festive break than Waialae Country Club, with brilliant weather all but guaranteed and a course that might easily be confused for paradise. It is one of the most stunning courses used by the PGA Tour. Waialae also regularly provides some cracking early year entertainment for golf fans, as low scores and tight finishes are the norm in the Sony Open.
The Sony Open has always been a winter event throughout its history. The first five editions of what was then known as the Hawaiian Open took place in November before it shifted to February for the 1971 renewal. A trip to compete in Hawaii has long been a favourite stop off for many players partly because it has a ‘horses for courses’ feel about it. Four players – Hubert Green, Corey Pavin, Ernie Els and Jimmy Walker – successfully defended their Sony Open in Hawaii title the year after winning the event for the first time. Only one other player, Lanny Wadkins (1988 and 1991), has won this event on more than one occasion.
2023: Si Woo Kim
Hayden Buckley boasted a two-shot lead over the field heading into the final round of the 2023 Sony Open at Hawaii. A mere 24 hours later, the Tennessee native was still waiting for a first career PGA Tour success. Posting a two-under-par 68 in for his closing round, Buckley hardly blew his chance but was not quite able to repel the late charge of Si Woo Kim.
Starting the day three off the lead, Kim flew out of the traps, with birdies at the first, the second and the third putting the pressure on the overnight leader. Riding out a bogey, birdie, bogey, birdie sequence heading into the turn, Kim remained in prime position to strike if able to find some magic on the back nine.
The key shot then came on the 17th hole. Mere seconds after Buckley had birdied the 16th to regain the lead, Kim chipped in from 28 feet to immediately draw level. A birdie at the 18th gave him the clubhouse lead, with Buckley needing to birdie the final hole to force a playoff. His chance came, and went, from 12ft on the 18th green, as Kim held on by one shot. Buckley claimed second, with Chris Kirk a further three shots back in a sole third.
It proved an excellent week at the office for one of South Korea’s hottest talents, claiming his first PGA Tour success since the 2021 American Express, 500 FedEx Points, and $1.4m in prize money.
2022: Hideki Matsuyama
Although Hideki Matsuyama was the big story of the 2021 Masters as he won his maiden major championship, the lasting image of the tournament was of his caddie, Shota Hayafuji, bowing to Augusta National on the 18th green. That player/caddie partnership was victorious again at the 2022 Sony Open in Hawaii but it was very much the player who produced the moment to remember.
Having battled through four days of tournament play, Matsuyama found himself in a tie with Russell Henley. The Japanese superstar clearly decided that he was not going to lose the tournament for a lack of commitment and swung out of his boots on the tee of the par-five 18th hole. His imperious drive still left 277 yards to the pin. Undaunted, Matsuyama approached his second shot with the same level of commitment. The aggression of the play was matched by the technique of the swing and the result was little more than a tap in for an eagle which secured the win.
Matsuyama’s delight was matched only by Henley’s disappointment. He began his final round by increasing his advantage from two to five shots over the front nine. Then he hit the skids. Mistakes from the leader were matched with brilliance from the challenger and come the playoff there was little surprise that Matsuyama used his momentum to win.
2021: Kevin Na
Golf is a sport rich in clichés and truisms such as ‘drive for show, putt for dough’, ‘when it’s breezy, swing easy’ and ‘beware the injured golfer’. Some of these are relics of a bygone age with little relevance to the modern game but Kevin Na did his bit to prove the latter. A rib injury came very close to stopping his attempt to win the Sony Open before it had even got started but he managed to get some treatment and nurse himself all the way through to a thrilling victory.
Na began the tournament in solid style. His rounds of 67 and 66 saw him comfortably through to the weekend but didn’t mark him out as one to watch over on Saturday and Sunday. That all changed when a stunning round of 61 saw Saturday live up to the billing of ‘moving day’, another golfing cliché ticked off. That stunning round catapulted the Seoul-born player right into the thick of things.
Na still had much work to do on Sunday as he remained one shot off Brendan Steele who held the 54 hole lead for the second year in a row. Just like 2020 though, Steele could not get himself over the line and a round of 65 was enough for Na to just about squeeze past Chris Kirk and Joaquin Niemann, who both finished one shot behind. To add another cliché to the list, Na earned the win not with any brilliance with his driver but with some very good approach play and a solid week with the putter. His 259, -21 total was typical of the sort of scores needed here and was just about good enough for him to claim a cool $1.18m.
2020: Cameron Smith
In 2020 the Sony Open in Hawaii was settled by a playoff for the third time in five years. Cameron Smith was relieved that he didn’t have to work quite as hard as Patton Kizzire two years earlier before winning at Waialae Country Club. The Australian needed just one extra hole to get the better of overnight leader Brendan Steele, capping off an excellent final round of golf in a year where scoring wasn’t as low as it usually is at this event and –11 was enough to make the playoff.
At the start of the day two shots was the difference between the two players in the final group. Steele was the bookies’ favourite but Smith was intent to cause an upset in Hawaii and so he did with an excellent final round. It took the entirety of his closing round of -6 for Smith to draw level. Steele gave his all to the cause and was only caught on the 18th hole after Smith brilliantly held his nerve and holed a putt from nine feet.
When that putt dropped you could sense Steele’s deflation and Smith’s delight. With his chest puffed out and adrenaline flowing through his veins, Smith made light work of the playoff. Whereas Steele was left to talk of how much the defeat hurt, Smith was understandably delighted and proud of the fight that he showed. “I just hung in there and what do you know?” Smith said. “Every birdie putt just meant that little bit more. Instead of wanting to make it, I felt like I had to make it.”
2019: Matt Kuchar
The importance of recent strong form coming into the Sony Open in Hawaii was made clear again in 2019’s edition. Just like Patton Kizzire a year earlier, Matt Kuchar became the first two-time winner of the PGA Tour season with this win at Waialae Country Club. Kuchar’s win also shows that this is a course where it is not necessary to drive the ball miles too.
Kuchar’s achievement may have been similar to Kizzire’s but the nature of his win was very different. There was no need for extra holes as he strode away with the tournament, winning by four strokes from Andrew Putnam with an aggregate of 258 (22 under par). Despite his final round of -4 being his joint worst score of the tournament, Kuchar was able to smoothly pull away from Putnam who came into the weekend just one shot behind the leader. Sadly for him, his attempt to win the title faded away while Kuchar used his experience to do what was required to get over the line.
Kuchar certainly had to lean into his experience to overcome a sloppy, nervy start to his final round. Three bogeys in his opening five holes threatened to trip him up during his victory lap but he quickly pulled himself together to secure a win that looked comfortable. “I kept plugging along, and I knew good things were going to happen,” Kuchar said of his mentality after that poor start. Coming through it has given him even more confidence as he aims to turn two wins for the season into even more success. For a player who has sometimes struggled to get over the line, this was a big win.
2018: Patton Kizzire
For most of the field at Waialae Country Club this was their first PGA Tour event of the calendar year. That wasn’t true for Patton Kizzire who stayed in Hawaii having competed in the previous week’s Tournament of Champions. He earned a place in the field for that event with his OHL Classic win in November and took full advantage of the chance to sharpen his game by winning the Sony Open to become the first multiple winner of the PGA Tour season.
Kizzire was made to work incredibly hard for the title, coming through a marathon playoff against James Hahn. The two men could not be separated after 72 holes with both reaching -17, one shot ahead of Tom Hoge. They remained locked together through the first playoff hole. And the second. And right through to the fifth. It was at the sixth extra hole where Kizzire finally shook his challenger off when a par was enough for the win on the second go up the par three 17th hole after four cracks at the par five 18th.
“It wasn’t pretty but I’ll take it any way I can get it,” Kizzire said afterwards. It would be unfair to the quality of golf he played in Hawaii to say that this win was just a case of hanging on grimly but Hahn was the man with all the momentum going into the playoff. His eye catching closing round of 62 just came up short for the win though and despite his Sunday brilliance it all ended with a frustrating bogey.