The Sony Open is a great contrast to the previous week’s Tournament of Champions, but in Round 1 on Thursday, it provided a similarly great leaderboard. Waialae Country Club is full of nuance and intrigue, but it can hardly stand up to the power of the modern game on the PGA Tour, which is why scores — as they normally do here — dipped into the mid- and low-60s on Thursday.
There’s a three-way tie at the top as Joaquin Niemann, Jason Kokrak and Peter Malnati all shot 8-under 62 to jump in front of an eclectic six-way tie at 6 under including Jim Herman, Vaughn Taylor, Si Woo Kim, Daniel Berger, Patton Kizzire and Aaron Baddeley who are all two back. Niemann is the biggest name among those six and consequently the favorite going into Round 2 (more on that below).
After a really fun first day and a broadcast full of golf, intriguing strategy chatter and a the nice cast of characters vying for this trophy, it’s time to discuss a great Round 1. Here are five takeaways from the opener in Honolulu.
1. Leaderboard look: Opposites attract, apparently, at the top of this board. Kokrak and Malnati could not be more different stylistically, but both played wonderful golf on Thursday. Kokrak probably has more staying power than Malnati just because he’s the superior tee-to-green golfer, but this course also disproportionately rewards great putters, which Malnati often is. Niemann — who chipped in at the last to join the 8-under group — is pretty clearly superior to those two with the way he’s playing right now, but I’ll dive deeper into him in a second.
Other names in the top 10 that pop out are Billy Horschel (-5), Webb Simpson (-5) and Daniel Berger (-6). There are enough studs in this tournament that at least a few of them will rise to the top by the end of the week. However, this is now Niemann’s tournament to lose.
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2. Joaco the Great: Niemann looked like he was playing Round 5 of the Tournament of Champions as he fired a similarly red-hot 62 to get his Sony Open started. He was my pick coming into the week, and I would like to double down on that even though his odds are less than a quarter what they were to start the tournament (25-1 to 6-1). He finished first in strokes gained off the tee and from tee to green. He looks like he’s going to continue the trend of playoff losers at Kapalua going on to find success the following week. Since 2000, five golfers have finished in the top six at the Sony Open following an extra-holes loss at the Tournament of Champions, including — most recently — Jimmy Walker winning the following week in 2016.
3. Stars show up: Collin Morikawa (-4) and Webb Simpson (-5) — the two highest-ranked players in the field — both showed up in Round 1 on Thursday, though they did it very differently. Morikawa’s big mistake on the day was an out-of-bounds ball on No. 12, which led to a double-bogey 6 that cost him a spot in the top 10. Strangely, Simpson struggled with his iron play, which is normally a place where he thrives. Morikawa also missed a few putts that made me gasp out loud. The point here is that neither player had his best stuff, and they’re both within four of the lead going into Round 2. Simpson is 10-1 odds to win, and Morikawa is 12-1 going into Round 2, and both numbers feel like a bargain.
4. Waialae weak but great: If the ball went about 50 yards shorter than it currently goes, Waialae Country Club would be an amazing PGA Tour stop. It can get fast and firm and has plenty of intrigue. Unfortunately a 7,000-yard course with modern equipment is going to be under assault from this glut of talent on the PGA Tour, but it still has its moments. I love watching golf on that course, especially around some of the better complexes when players miss with their approach shots (mostly with wedges).
5. Well done: Berger has been playing at a top-10 clip for about a year now, and it feels like he’s rarely (ever?) talked about among the best players in the world. He again shot a 64 on Thursday and sits just two back after making a nice run last week as well. According to Data Golf, over the last 12 months, Berger, Simpson and Harris English have been (by far) the best players on the PGA Tour who are also playing in this tournament. He has few (if any) weaknesses and didn’t even drive it that well on Thursday. He should be in it until the end.