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Sony Open First Round Leader predictions and picks from Tom Jacobs. Who will lead the way after Round 1 in Honolulu? Tom breaks down which golfers he is backing this Thursday.
ANALYSIS

Sony Open First Round Leader Prediction and Picks

This week, we get the first full-field PGA Tour event of 2022, the Sony Open in Hawaii. For more insight on the event itself, you can check out my full preview of the event here. With a week in Hawaii already under our belts, we have had an early indication of what to expect in this part of the world and time of the year, and we have a lot of history to look over for this event as well. The event has been held at Waialae Country Club since the event’s inception in 1965, so we know what is required of a first-round leader here and we will examine that further now.

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First Round Leader Strategy

How do we go about spotting value in the First Round Leader markets? This tends to change week-to-week depending on weather and course conditions but we tend to target early tee times when playing Stateside, as that seems to give players an edge as they’re out in generally calm conditions, with the best greens and smaller crowds unless in a marquee group, giving them a chance to string together their round in peace. This week, keep an eye on the weather forecast as this event is well known for its “trade winds” and you do not want to get caught in the wrong side of those. As this is the first full-field event of the year, tee times are going to be split clearly into AM and PM again and we should take a look at the most recent first-round leaders and what time they teed off in order to shoot their low opening round.

Click here for the latest Sony Open first-round leader odds

*All times below are local time*

  • 2021: Jason Kokrak (12:30 pm #10 tee), Peter Malnati (7:20 am #10 tee), Joaquin Niemann (12.40 pm #1 Tee) – 62
  • 2020: Collin Morikawa (8:00 am #10 tee) – 65
  • 2019: Adam Svensson (13:00 pm #10 tee) – 61
  • 2018: Zach Johnson (12:30 pm #1 tee) and Chris Kirk (7:40 am #10 tee) – 63
  • 2017: Justin Thomas (8:00 am #10 tee) – 59
  • 2016: Ricky Barnes (7:20 am #1 tee), Morgan Hoffmann (8:20am #10 tee), Kevin Kisner (12:30 pm #1 tee), Vijay Singh (7:30 am #10 tee), Brandt Snedeker (12:30 pm #1 tee) – 63
  • 2015: Paul Casey (7:20 am #10 tee) and Webb Simpson (7:50am #10 tee) – 62
  • 2014: Sang-Moon Bae (7:50 am #1 tee) – 63
  • 2013: Scott Langley (13:00 pm #1 tee) – 62
  • 2012: Graeme DaLaet (8:20 am # tee) – 63

In 8 of the past 10 renewals, either the leader or at least one co-leader has come from the morning wave, with 2013 and 2019 the exceptions. As a result, whilst I wouldn't put you off a player you like in this market, just because they are teeing off in the afternoon, I do think it is wise to have at least one runner from the morning wave.

Who in this field started fast on Tour last season?

Here are the 10 fastest starters in the field based on Round 1 Scoring Average in the 2020/21 PGA Tour season.

Cameron Smith (1st overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 68.91) – Low Opening Round – 62 (RBC Heritage)

Brian Harman (5th overall in 2020/21 - Scoring Average 69.37) - Low Opening Round - 65 (Twice)

Seamus Power (10th overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 69.59) – Low Opening Round – 65 (Twice)

Russell Henley (11th overall in 2020/21 - Scoring Average 69.63) - Low Opening Round - 62 (Wyndham Championship)

Keegan Bradley (13th overall in 2020/21 - Scoring Average 69.65) - Low Opening Round - 64 (Valspar Championship)

Webb Simpson (13th overall in 2020/21 - Scoring Average 69.65) - Low Opening Round - 65 (Twice)

Chris Kirk (19th overall in 2020/21 - Scoring Average 69.72) - Low Opening Round - 64 (Wyndham Championship)

Talor Gooch (24th overall in 2020/21) – Scoring Average 69.88) – Low Opening Round – 64 (Travelers Championship)

Sungjae Im (25th overall in 2020/21) - Scoring Average 69.94) - Low Opening Round - 66 (Wyndham Championship)

Abraham Ancer (26th overall in 2020/21) - Scoring Average 69.96) - Low Opening Round - 66 (Twice)

What score is generally required to lead after Round 1?

This is of course a bit of a guess and subject to change, dependant on the course, but 62 is a good target this week. If we average out the leading round 1 scores on the PGA Tour from the 2020/21 season, over 45 individual events we get an average leading round 1 score of 63.97.

If we look at the last ten years of First Round Leaders of this event, the average leading score is 62.3, with Justin Thomas' 59 taking it closer to 62 as opposed to 63. As Hudson Swafford shot 62 that week also, I would say 62 is a fair target, but 63 could get it done as well.

Sony Open First Round Leader Favorites

Cameron Smith (+2500)

Cameron Smith led after Round 1 last week, so he has recent history of leading after day one, and there's no reason to think he couldn't continue that here.

Much like the outright market though, I do not feel the need to go here at the price, but respect the chances.

Webb Simpson (+2900)

Webb Simpson has been within two of the first round lead 40 times in his career, and has led or co-led on 12 of those occasions, showing a knack for fast starting from this course horse.

One of those leads came when firing a 62 here in 2015, as he shared the lead with Paul Casey and he's been pretty solid on correlating courses also. First round leads at the Tournament of Champions, Players Championship, multiple at the RSM and the Seth Raynor-designed Greenbrier all give further confidence he can start well here.

He last led after the first round of the Workday Championship back in February 2021 and was within two of the leaders at the Open Championship in July, but hasn't threatened the Thursday lead in an official event since, despite being one off the pace on Thursday at the Hero World Challenge.

I will avoid him here at the odds, but this might be a good way for you to get him onside if you like this course horse, but don't necessarily trust him to win.

Marc Leishman (+3500)

Leishman has been within two of the first round lead 36 times in his career, and six of those were leads/co-leads so like Simpson he can start well.

His most recent first round lead he shared at the Houston Open in November 2021, and then you have to go back to the 2018 Byron Nelson for the last occasion.

The Houston Open was the only time in 2021 that he was within two of the lead after day one, other than his pairs effort at the Zurich with Cam Smith which I omit from my stats due to the format.

Given his lack of recent efforts at going close in this market I will leave him alone, as I prefer him to grow into an event and go lower as we get to the business-end of the event.

Sungjae Im (+3500)

Sungjae Im has been within two of the lead 26 times already in his short career, although the first fourteen occasions came on a mix of the Japanese and Korean Tours.

So it's been 12 times since playing on the Korn Ferry/PGA Tour, with 11 coming on the PGA Tour from 2018 onward, so its an impressive strike rate all the same.

His only sole lead came on the Korn Ferry Tour but he shared the Thursday lead at the 2019 Wyndham Championship with an opening 62, and he's been within two twice of late. He opened with a 67 last week to sit two back after day one and it was the same situation when opening with a 63 at the Shriners, which he went on to win.

He's a lively front-runner in this market, but I like one at slightly longer odds so I will pass.

Hideki Matsuyama (+3500)

Like Sungjae, I am very sweet on someone at 40/1, so I am going to pass on both of these respectfully, but I will make the case for Hideki for those that may want to take one of the outright favorites in this market.

Hideki has been within two of the lead 27 times in his career, which actually makes Sungjae's record look ridiculous given how good Hideki was from a young age.

In total Matsuyama has led/co-led 7 times and all but one came on the PGA Tour. The most recent of those came during the 2020 FedEx Cup Playoffs when he led the BMW Championship with an opening-round 67.

I actually prefer Matsuyama at tougher layouts as I think his ball-striking comes to the forefront more and his putter doesn't have so much influence and I suspect he may just come up short of the 62/63 required here for that reason. I like him in the outright as I think he can rattle off 65's each day, but at the odds I will pass on hoping he fires a 63 Thursday knowing that still might not be enough.

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Sony Open First Round Leader Picks

With three players I like in the triple-digit range, I have picked one selection more than usual, as I think there is some value across the board here.

Russell Henley (+4500)

Russell Henley has perennially been a fast starter, having ranked T11 in Round 1 Scoring Average last season, T15 in the 2019/20 season and T8 in the 2017 season. That proves a pattern that has been consistent in this stage of his career, and I am happy to chance he can do it this week as well.

Henley has led or co-led eight times in his career, two of which came in 2008 and 2010 before turning professional in 2011, and he's been within two of the lead a total of 29 times in his career, so clearly Henley is well versed in the art of starting his week off quickly and he's got some previous in doing so, both on this course and on correlating courses as well. To see more information on the correlating courses, please check out my early preview which highlights the courses that compare well here.

Henley won this tournament in 2013, becoming the first player since the inaugural staging to win this tournament on their first appearance, and he started the week in quick fashion opening up with a round of 63 to sit one behind fellow rookie, Scott Langley at close of play Thursday. He shot two more 63's that week on Friday and Sunday showing an immediate affinity with the course.

He's been hit and miss here since, missing three cuts and posting finishes of 51st and 66th as well, but there have still been some good weeks here as well. 12 months ago he finished T11 for his best finish here since winning, but he also finished 13th in 2017 and 17th in 2015 to give additional confidence. He fired an opening-round 64 in 2017 to get off to a hot start, but Justin Thomas' 59 put sword to any chances of him leading after round 1 that year, but three more rounds of 66-64-65 last year and a 64 in round two back in 2015 suggests he can go low here when on form.

You have to go back to the Open Championship in July for the last time Henley missed the cut on Tour, and to start his new season he has posted a T7 finish in Houston and three more top-25's, including at the RSM Classic last time out, where he opened with a 64, so he's in fine form right now.

His opening rounds so far this season read 67-68-65-65-64, and one of the 65's gave him the co-lead at the Houston Open back in November so you haven't got to go back far for the last time he cashed in this market, and as we have shown there is clear pattern of him starting fast.

An opening 62 at the Wyndham back in August 2021 also gave him the first-round lead there, as did an opening 67 at the U.S. Open, so I am confident he can start fast on a course he's enjoyed in the past.

He's also been within two of the lead on Thursday at the Mayakoba, the Honda Classic (twice), the FedEx St Jude and the Players Championship in the past, all courses I consider a good pointer to here, so I love his chances.

40/1 looks fair.

Chris Kirk (+6600)

Chris Kirk has held 7 leads/co-leads in his career. One was at this course in 2018, one came at the Tournament of Champions in Kapalua back in 2014, and two more were at similar type courses at the Mayakoba (known then as the OHL Classic) in 2016 and the RSM Classic in 2017, so it's clear he loves this sort of test.

In total Kirk has been within two of the lead after day one 30 times in his career and again some of those have come on correlated courses. He shot an opening-round 64 to sit two back of Henley at the Wyndham Championship in 2021 and he'd already opened with a 65 on at that same tournament in 2013. A 66 to be two back at the FedEx St Jude in 2018 is relevant, as is the 65 to be two back at the Greenbrier Classic in 2015 as well. Lastly, he fired and opening 64 here in 2014 to be one back of the lead, to give two fast starts at this course on his record.

Kirk is averaging 67.60 in the opening round so far this season, with his Thursday 64 at El Camaleon in November particularly pleasing. Whilst he's not led on Thursday so far this season, he looks due and I will chance it comes at a course he's loved over the years.

He shot four-straight 65s here last year to finish 2nd behind Kevin Na and could have easily won, and that makes it three times in eleven starts here that he's been within three of the lead after day one. He's also finished 2nd here twice, 5th once and 10th on another occasion, so not only can he start fast but he can finish well as well.

Kirk just missed my shortlist in the outright market this week, but I will play him here instead.

Zach Johnson (+10000)

Zach Johnson's best days are almost certainly behind him, but I am still confident he can compete on the right golf courses, even if the days of defying the odds at Augusta and St Andrews are a thing of the past.

Even if I didn't think he can win here, or at the likes of the John Deere or the Wyndham anymore, I certainly don't think it is too much to ask for him to go low on a Thursday. He showed recently at the RSM Classic when he opened with a 61 that he's still capable to go deep when his game lines up, as it could here this week. Sebastian Munoz's 60 that week meant he can't add that to his bank of first round leads, but he's still held thirteen of them in his career, including twice here.

A 63 in 2013 saw him share the lead with Kirk back in 2018 and a 65 saw him share it with five others here in 2010, and I am confident he can replicate those efforts.

Johnson has been within two of the lead 61 times in his career and in addition to his two co-leads here, he shot a 64 in 2016 to sit one back, so I am hoping he can bottle what he found on Thursday at the RSM Classic and bring it here to Hawaii.

Brian Stuard (+10000)

Brian Stuard has finished inside the top-8 here four times in nine starts, with a 4th place finish in 2018 the pick of the bunch. That's not necessarily helpful to us for this type of bet though, and we need to investigate how he does in the opening round here.

Upon looking at these results into more detail, it shows that Stuard does also start fast on this golf course, opening with a 65 to sit two back in 2014 and he's also posted five more opening rounds of 66 in his nine starts.

Only twice in his career has he ever opened with a round worse than 67 here, and while he's never quite made enough putts to lead, not much would have to change for that to be the case.

This is a bit of a percentage play, as I think he's a very solid prospect to shoot a score in the mid-60's and I will just hope he finds a few more putts just once, to get down to the 62/63 target.

His best round here is a 64 in the third round back in 2019, so maybe he has a high floor and a low ceiling but if you can each-way your bet, he's a prime candidate at 100/1 odds.

Vaughn Taylor (+20000)

Vaughn Taylor has been a fairly popular selection in this market over the years, as his outright odds are normally long enough to chance him having one good round, and that is certainly the case here.

Taylor has played this event 10 times in his career, and he has been within three of the lead four times in that span.

He's never led here after the opening day, or in fact any round here but his opening 64 last year saw him sit two behind, the same score left him one behind Kirk and Johnson in 2018 and going right back to 2006 an opening 67 saw him sit two back on Thursday as well.

Like Stuard, perhaps that is the best he can do, but at 200/1 I am willing to chance that not only has he got his scoring boots on, after getting in as an alternate, but that he can get a couple more putts to drop on this occasion.

Taylor has been within two of the first round lead 50 times in his career, and led or co-led on 10 of those occasions, so he does have previous. He's led or co-led after round 1 at the Heritage twice and once at the FedEx St Jude, both of which correlate nicely, and an opening 65 at the Barbasol last July put him one behind the first round lead, which is recent enough evidence for me.

He's not in the best of form, hence his odds but I will chance him given his long odds, coming off what may have been a well-needed break.

Others Considered: Joel Dahmen, Tom Hoge, Stephan Jaeger and Greyson Sigg

Article Author

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Tom Jacobs is the host of the Lost Fore Words golf podcast and has been writing betting articles on golf for the past decade. Tom also co-hosts the DP World Tour Picks & Bets show on the Mayo Media Network, so has his finger on the pulse on all the major Tours. A long-suffering Nottingham Forest fan, Tom also enjoys watching Soccer at the weekend, and was delighted to see his Forest team win promotion this season!

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