2020 Sony Open picks and expert predictions: The dangerous game of fading Justin Thomas
(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Just like that, we’re one tournament into 2020, and Golf Digest's panel of experts, a leading collection of handicappers in the industry, picked up where we left off. Three of our seven experts had Justin Thomas to win at Sentry. Our panel has now picked seven winners in the first 11 tournaments—including Brandon Gdula of FanDuel, who has predicted four winners, which means he's up 132 units this season alone (so $10 bets on each outright bet would net $1,320). Not too shabby, if we do say so ourselves. But we know back-slapping isn't very interesting. The year's first full-field event is upon us, and we're ready to make you more money.
Thomas is looking for the second Hawaii double dip of his career, and Patrick Reed will also tee it up in the hopes of getting some revenge after losing to Thomas in a playoff. The field is not the strongest, but names like Webb Simpson, Hideki Matsuyama and Matt Kuchar will also be in the mix. It’s another week of primetime golf. We can get used to this!
Our expert picks this week, just like every week, include a caddie offering insight from the range and putting green at the 2020 Sony Open; picks from Jason Sobel, a senior writer at The Action Network, which is becoming the leader in sports betting and handicapping analysis, and it's growing its presence in golf; two of the most respected experts in the daily-fantasy community, Pat Mayo of DraftKings and Brandon Gdula of FanDuel; Lee Alldrick of FanShare Sports, which tracks DFS ownership and sentiment; and Columbia University senior lecturer and Ph.D. Lou Riccio, who uses predictive analysis and modeling to forecast winners in golf.
2020 Sony Open Picks To Win (Odds from MGM Sportsbook)
Anonymous Caddie Picker of the Week: Justin Thomas (5-1) — We nailed this last week. And we know it: When JT gets firing on all cylinders, he's tough to beat. He's also showing up at a course that he's previously shot 59 and won on. He said immediately after his win he'd be focused on earning Win No. 13 this week. It's hard not to back him here.
Pat Mayo, DraftKings/Fantasy National analyst: Collin Morikawa (16-1) — Of everyone not named Justin Thomas or Xander Schauffele, no other player gained more strokes ball striking than Collin Morikawa at the Tournament of Champions. A pedestrian week around and on the greens had him settle into a T7 finish. Bets part: Morikawa was consistent, gaining in both SG: APP and SG: OTT in all four rounds.
Brandon Gdula, FanDuel/numberFire editor: Webb Simpson (12-1) — Simpson does what’s needed to contend at Waialae, as he is seventh in strokes gained/approach and 48th in fairways gained over the past 50 rounds on the PGA Tour, according to Fantasy National. Simpson also rates out as a great Bermuda putter and has played here in eight of the past 10 years.
Dr. Lou Riccio, Columbia University: Justin Thomas (5-1) — His odds were the same last week in a much smaller field. Which begs the question ... Which is tougher: Beating a higher-caliber but smaller field, or a lesser-caliber, larger field? My model give her a 7-percent chance of winning, whereas last week, he had about a 5.5-percent chance of winning last week, per my numbers. So the numbers say he's more likely to win this week than last week.
Jason Sobel, Action Network senior golf writer: Collin Morikawa (16-1) — I originally had the soon-to-be 23-year-old listed as a one-and-done pick, for this reason: “Young players are always difficult to pin down in one-and-done pools, because unlike veterans, their schedules are more fluid and less rigid. We know—or at least we assume—that Morikawa, who won after turning pro last summer, will play in any and all majors and WGCs for which he gains entrance. Other than that? It’s a bit of a guessing game—and you don’t want to take a DNS on such a big talent later in the year.” It made so much sense that I really didn’t want to rewrite the whole thing and move him into this category instead, but there was one small problem: I really like him this week. At a lower number than guys like Matt Kuchar and Joaquin Niemann, it still feels like Morikawa’s value is a bit too inflated, but he fits all the prerequisites for Waialae winners. And uh, yes, he’s a strong OAD option, too.
Stephen Hennessey, Golf Digest associate editor: Sungjae Im (22-1) — Among players looking for their first win, I'd put my money on Sungjae long term. He's coming off a Presidents Cup where he played like one of the best players in the world, which must give him confidence he can get over that hurdle. Plus, Sungjae plays better on seaside courses. The win is coming, and I'm not missing out.
Christopher Powers, Golf Digest assistant editor: Corey Conners (40-1) — Conners, who won the Valero Texas Open last year, has quietly had a strong start to the 2019-’20 season. He’s already finished in the top 13 three times, and I think he has a little something to prove after being left off the Presidents Cup team. Over his last 50 rounds on tour, he’s 5th in strokes-gained: tee-to-green, third in strokes-gained: ballstriking and first in strokes-gained: off-the-tee, per fantasynational.com. You’ve got to keep it in the fairway at Waialae, where you can find some nasty lies in the Bermuda rough.
Lee Alldrick, FanShare Sports golf expert: Webb Simpson (12-1) — This course suits Webb down to a tee. He has a fourth-place finish last time here (2018) and had three T-13s before that. He has three second-place finishes in his past eight events, so his form is hot.
Results from this season: We correctly predicted seven winners of 11 official tournaments we forecasted in the fall! FanDuel's Brandon Gdula has predicted four victories on his own, netting +132 units this season alone (the equivalent of being up $1,320 on $10 bets), after predicting Justin Thomas' win last week. Our tour caddie, and DraftKings' Pat Mayo, also had JT as their pick to win. FanShare Sports' Lee Alldrick picked Rory McIlroy at the WGC-HSBC Champions, giving him three winning predictions early in the season. Three members of our expert panel correctly picked the favorite a couple weeks ago at the CJ Cup, Justin Thomas (8-1), so we have a lot of positive momentum. Check out everyone's records in the betting card above.
Sleepers/Dark Horses That Could Win at the 2020 Sony Open (odds from MGM Sportsbook)
Caddie: Rory Sabbatini (66-1) — He's a gritty player and it looks like some windy conditions are in the schedule. Plays well on Bermuda grass.
Mayo: JT Poston (50-1) — Playing a hunch with Poston over focusing purely on stats. Carried by his putter in his past two starts (T-11/T-14), the Wyndham winner gets a perfectly suited course to his skills to get himself back closer to his ball-striking baseline. All his best results over the past year have come at shorter courses like Waialae: The win at Sedgefield, T-14 at the RSM, T-11 in Detroit, T-6 at Heritage, T-22 at The Players, and the T-20 at last year’s Sony Open.
Gdula: Vaughn Taylor (90-1) — A win for Taylor would be his first since 2016 and his second since 2005, but he had six top-10 finishes last year and has the combination of approach play and driving accuracy to contend at Waialae.
Riccio: Zach Johnson (80-1) — My model puts Zach Johnson in the top five for this week. His stats from 2019 are likely causing other experts to overlook ZJ, but he's a past winner at Waialae and boasts six other top-15 finishes. That's an impressive track record to go along with his long-term strokes gained/approach stats. He has gained more than five strokes on the field in three of the past four Sony Opens, according to FantasyNational.com. If his putter lights up, on a course where he's familiar, ZJ could threaten for a 13th tour win.
Sobel, Action Network: Corey Conners (45-1) — Trust me: The picks aren’t all going to be Kapalua leftovers, but I’m a continually growing fan of Conners’ game. I liked him last week, but this one should suit his style much better—a short, tight, wind-blown track where his ball-striking skills are on display and his putting woes are masked. The Canadian was T-3 here last year, posting a pair of 64s on the weekend -- and he’s matured a lot as a player ever since. This is a course where history holds some weight and we’ve witnessed some repeat contenders. Conners checks all the relevant boxes.
Hennessey, Golf Digest: Russell Henley (100-1) — Chalk this up to being partially a believer in good karma. Henley, as you recall, called a penalty on himself at Mayakoba for switching models of golf balls mid-round. https://www.golfdigest.com/story/russell-henley-penalized-eight-strokes-for-violating-one-ball-rule-will-miss-cut-at-mayakoba-golf-classic He's gained more than seven strokes on his approach shots in two of the past nine events he's played in, and gained strokes off the tee in seven of the past nine tournaments. That's a formula to success at Waialae, where he already boasts a win. In a birdie-fest, Henley's putter can absolutely light on fire. Plus, some good vibes.
Powers, Golf Digest: Marc Leishman (60-1) — If you told me Marc Leishman is a “longshot” in any tournament he plays in, I’d laugh at you. Yet here we are. The big Aussie is 60-1 at a tournament he finished T-3 in last year, fifth in 2014 and T-9 in 2013. He’s definitely getting a look from me this week.
Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Ryan Armour (100-1) — Armour ranks second in the field this week for strokes gained/tee-to-green over the past three months and in the Opportunities Gained stat. We also have him ranked fairly high in our course-suitability metric, a fact backed up by his 22nd-place finish here last year. Sneaky value, and most people will miss it because you don't think of Armour as having win equity. But he does.
Players to Fade This Week (who will disappoint)
Caddie: Alex Noren (40-1) — I think Alex Noren is valued too high this week. He hasn't really shown any recent form.
Mayo: Hideki Matsuyama (18-1) — The last six winners of the Sony Open have played the week previous at the Tournament of Champions, so it’s a tough spot for Hideki at this price. Clearly his skills can overcome that, but he has just never jived with this course. In six starts he has four missed cuts and doesn't have a finish better than T-27 (2017).
Gdula: Justin Thomas (5-1) — At such short odds, there really isn’t much drawing me to Thomas as an outright winner. In terms of my win simulations, he’s the likeliest winner (unsurprisingly) but just doesn’t offer enough value to chase him. Daily fantasy is a different conversation, though.
Riccio: Patrick Reed (12-1) — The long-term stats aren't kind to Reed on a shorter course where you need to gain strokes off the tee and in proximity. And in his past two events where ShotLink data is available, he has lost strokes on his approach shots. I'd rather trust the long-term sample size than rely on another otherworldly short game week from him.
Sobel, Action Network: Hideki Matsuyama (18-1) — This could be a very big year for Hideki. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if he peels off his first major and leaps from his current 22nd spot in the world ranking into the top 10 once again. But three things are working against him this week: He’s a high-ball hitter, which isn’t a great recipe in the expected winds; he tends to play his best golf in mid-summer and beyond, often taking a while to heat up; and, perhaps a result of that last one, he owns a forgettable record at the Sony, with nothing better than a T-27 in six career starts. I won’t be fading Matsuyama much this year, but this one seems like the right time and place.
Hennessey, Golf Digest: Patrick Reed (12-1) — Patrick Reed gained a million strokes around the greens last week to mask his off-the-tee and iron game. That's not sustainable, and at a birdie-fest like the Sony Open, you're going to need to hit it better than we saw P-Reed hit it last week.
Powers, Golf Digest: Justin Thomas (5-1) — I understand he owns Hawaii and he's done the double dip (Kapalua-Sony) before, but 5-1 in a full field is a Tiger-like number, and you just can't get me to defend betting it.
Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Patrick Reed (12-1) — Despite another good finish last week, Reed’s underlying stats are not good enough for him to be an 11/1 shot this week. Reed will need to rely on his recent unsustainable putting, on a course that doesn’t suit his game to win this week. He ranks just 61st in our course-suitability metric.
2020 Sony Open: Matchups
Caddie: Matt Kuchar (+105) over Hideki Matsuyama (Sportsbook) — At plus-odds, it's tough not to like Kuch here. He's a past winner, he drives it really well, which is a requirement out here at Waialae, and he can roll it on Bermuda.
Mayo: Corey Conners (-110) over Abraham Ancer (Bet365) — Waialae favors irons over driving, which is a check for Conners over Ancer. Plus, the last time we saw Ancer, he was in God mode with his flat stick at the Presidents Cup, until he saw Tiger standing across from him. I'm willing to go with the long-term stats of Conners.
Gdula: Brandt Snedeker (-108) over Charles Howell III (FanDuel) — Snedeker has the edge in short game and approach, as well as driving accuracy, over the past 50 rounds. That’s enough to separate the two course horses.
Riccio: Webb Simpson (-112) over Patrick Reed (MGM) — Webb is second on my model this week, and Reed, as you read above, is a major fade for me. This is a strong recommendation from me.
Sobel, Action Network: Sebastian Munoz (-120) over Brian (Sportsbook) — Munoz might not be the most underrated player on the PGA Tour just yet, but he should at least be in the running for this year’s Xander Schauffele Award.* (*Not a real thing. But it should be.) Coming off a solid T-17 last week and a T-10 at this event last year, Munoz could be poised for another under-the-radar week. He’s priced with some players he should beat, so I’d take him in just about any head-to-head matchup.
Hennessey, Golf Digest: Collin Morikawa (+110) over Hideki Matsuyama (MGM) — There's a couple things in favor of this bet: Matsuyama hasn't finished higher than 27th at Waialae in six previous appearances. And Morikawa played at Kapalua last week, which jives with the trend of players who teed it up at the Sentry correlating to success at the Sony Open. At plus-odds, Morikawa is a confident play for me.
Powers, Golf Digest: Charles Howell III (+100) over Kevin Kisner — It’s basically a guarantee that CH3 makes the cut at Sony, where he’s made roughly a billion dollars in his career (ballpark figure). Kisner has struggled of late. CH3 almost never struggles. Love him at even money in this matchup.
Alldrick, FanShare Sports: _Webb Simpson (-112) over Patrick Reed (MGM) — The course suits Simpson and he ranks sixth for strokes gained/tee-to-green over the past three months. The course does not suit Reed—he ranks just 52nd for strokes gained/tee-to-green over the same period.
Matchup results last week: Gdula and Alldrick: Both 1 for 1 (Both had Patrick Reed (-108) over Patrick Cantlay; Riccio: 1 for 1 (Xander Schauffele (-125) over Patrick Cantlay); Tour Caddie: 0 for 1; Mayo: 0 for 1; Action Network: 0 for 1; GD Editors: 0 for 1.
Matchup results this season (assuming each matchup is a one-unit wager): Alldrick, FanShare Sports: 7 wins, 2 losses, 1 push (up 3.78 units); Tour Caddie: 5 wins, 2 losses, 1 push (up 2.82 units); Riccio: 6 wins, 4 losses, 1 push (up 1.71 units); Mayo: 6 wins, 5 losses (up 0.73 units); Action Network: 5 wins, 5 losses (down 0.30 units); GD Editors: 5 wins, 5 losses (down 1.52 units); Gdula: 4 wins, 6 losses (down 1.52 units)
Top 10 (odds from FanDuel Sportsbook)
Caddie: Fabian Gomez (+1000) — Gomez drives it so good and this is the type of course that doesn't penalize the shorter hitters. He should fair well this week with his tidy game.
Mayo: Corey Conners (+340) — The Canadian dropped strokes off the tee at Kapalua for the first time since missing the cut at The Open in July. I'm willing to chalk that up. Especially since he was positive for three of the four rounds; a dipterous -1.5 strokes gained/off-the-tee in Day 3 really skews his numbers. Like always, it’s going to come down to putting with Conners. He’s a reliable enough ball-striker to lurk on the leaderboard when he’s missing half his five-footers. Start making a few, and he could be looking down on everyone come Sunday. Over his past 24 rounds, per FantasyNational.com, he ranks top 10 in this field in strokes gained/approach, opportunities gained, Par 4s gained 400-450 yards, and strokes gained/off-the-tee. With additional top-20 grades in par-3s gained, eagles gained, par-5s gained, and Good Drives gained.
Gdula: Xinjun Zhang (+1600) — Zhang ranks top 50 in both strokes gained/off the tee and strokes gained/approach over the past 50 rounds on the PGA Tour, and he’s also an accurate driver. He doesn’t have a lot of experience on Bermuda greens (41 rounds on the PGA Tour), but at such long odds for a top-10, Zhang is worth backing.
Riccio: Matt Kuchar (+240) — You could go with more value with Joaquin Niemann (+340, according to FanDuel). But he's more volatile—he has more win equity but Kuchar is the safer top-10 play.
Sobel, Action Network: Kevin Kisner (+350) — A couple of things happened to help move Kisner in our favor this week. First, he chased finishes of T-5 and T-4 here in 2016 and ’17, respectively, with a T-25 and T-69 the past two years, just enough to throw everyone off the scent. Then there’s the fact that he was T-4 through 54 holes last week, only to drop 10 spots with a final-round 76. While some might view those as negatives, I love the fact that each is keeping the numbers from getting too low. This course suits him much better than Kapalua, so expect him to build on some leftover momentum.
Hennessey, Golf Digest: Charles Howell III (+380) — This is essentially the Charles Howell Open. He has 10 top-10s in his career, never missing a cut, spanning two decades of teeing it up at Waialae. You're getting a nice price on this based on recent form. But Howell owns Waialae. He should be a safe one-and-done pick and figures it be near the leader board on Sunday.
Powers, Golf Digest: Webb Simpson (+165) — At this point, you should be getting plus odds at Webb not finishing in the top 10, because it’s literally all the guy does. In his last 46 PGA Tour starts, he’s finished in the top 10 17(!!!) times, and 12 of those results have been inside the top 5. The former U.S. Open winner is on an all-time heater. Let’s cash in on that.
Alldrick, FanShare Sports: Marc Leishman (+380) — Leishman is a massive fan of this course having made the cut in all 10 events here. It’s not surprising then to see him rank inside the top 10 in our course-suitability metric. Two top-10 finishes in his past four events, plus some reps at the Presidents Cup, shows that he is playing well enough to complement his course fit.
Top 10 results last week: Mayo: 1 for 1 (Patrick Reed, +110); Everybody else: 0 for 1
Top-10 results for the year (assuming a one-unit wager): Mayo: 2 for 10 (up 8.1 units); Alldrick: 2 for 11 (up 3.5 units); Gdula 2 for 11 (down 0.3 units); GD Editors: 2 for 11 (down 2.15 units); Action Network: 1 for 11 (down 6.5 units); Riccio: 1 for 11 (down 7.5 units); Tour Caddie: 0 for 10 (down 10 units)
About our experts
Dr. Lou Riccio, a PhD senior lecturer, teaches rational decision making at Columbia's Graduate School of Business and has served on the USGA's handicap research team for three decades. His predictive analysis and modeling helps him make expert picks for our column.
Pat Mayo is known as one of the pre-eminent experts in daily-fantasy sports and golf handicapping specifically. Mayo is a 17-time fantasy sports-writers association finalist, the most of any writer this decade, and Mayo won the 2019 Fantasy Sports Writing Association Daily Fantasy Writer of the Year and Podcast of the Year awards, along with the Fantasy Sports Trade Association Best Video award. Mayo is on the board of governors at www.fantasynational.com. Here’s a link to watch his complete DraftKings preview of the 2019 Wyndham Championship.
Brandon Gdula, a senior editor and analyst for NumberFire, a FanDuel daily-fantasy analysis company, recently won the 2018 fantasy sports-writers association Golf Writer of the Year (congrats, Brandon!). Gdula also co-hosts the DFS Heat Check podcast.
Jason Sobel is a senior writer for The Action Network. For more analysis from The Action Network, click here.
Stephen Hennessey and Christopher Powers are Golf Digest's main gambling writers. Listen to this week's Golf Digest podcast, where they break down their favorite bets for the Sony Open, as well as major winners and season-long predictions.
Lee Alldrick of FanShare Sports started out writing an article highlighting the best bargain plays for fantasy golf under his twitter handle @DKGolfBargains. His success at this prompted FanShare Sports to enlist him as a guest writer, which evolved into him writing the weekly Under The Radar article. As a U.K.-based expert, Alldrick’s insight into European Tour regulars and low priced, low owned plays has provided an invaluable edge for readers when it comes to DFS GPPs.
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