HONOLULU, HI – Same state, new island, two courses that could not be more different.
What hasn't changed between the two-week Hawaii swing on the PGA Tour is the wind, which is stronger than usual. The gusts approached 40 mph at Kapalua last week for the Sentry Tournament of Champions. It was blowing just as hard Wednesday at Waialae on the eve of the Sony Open.
“I've never seen the wind blow like this, and it's supposed to blow like this every day,” said Justin Thomas, who will try to repeat his Hawaii 2-0 performance from 2017 when he won on both courses.
Thomas and the other 22 players in the winners-only field last week at least have some fresh experience. They faced three straight days of gusts that made Kapalua feel even more extreme than usual, especially on the greens. Thomas won in a playoff over Xander Schauffele and Patrick Reed, and all three said putts were knocked off line depending on the gusts.
“I thought I was going to get a little bit of a break after last week, but looks like we've got more wind and rain," Thomas said. “Luckily, I had a little bit of a head start. So hopefully, it'll help.”
The Sony Open starts on Thursday with Matt Kuchar as the defending champion. He is among those at Kapalua last week who should get some answers on which course is tougher to play in the wind.
It's not that simple an equation.
Kapalua tipped out at close to 7,600 yards for a par 73, with massive fairways. The course was built on the side of a mountain, so players rely on how the ball reacts on the ground as much as in the air. But the course was soft from so much rain the mowers were not used since Friday. Some of the wind was right into their faces or behind them. Reed had a 119-yard shot on the exposed 10th hole that he played as if it were 165 yards.
Waialae is 7,044 yards at a par 70, with narrow fairways and a strain of Bermuda grass that allows the ball to sink to the bottom. The greens are small. But being older, and so much recent rain, they are extremely soft and receptive.
“I think guys that played last week have a pretty nice advantage,” Graeme McDowell said. “We have a week under our belt in very similar conditions. But this week, the greens are more receptive. I can't believe how soft they are."
Corey Conners was happy to be on a flatter piece of property, even in big wind. He expects the shots to be more predictable, mainly because he won't be trying to hit from a severe lie — up or down — on the side of a hill.
“The impact it has on the ball is similar,” Conners said. “But last week was more challenging. You had the ball way above your feet, trying to work the ball into the wind. It's tough to do.”
Thomas felt like wind would cause more problems this week because Waialae is at sea level. In fact, step over the stone wall next to the 17th tee and the next step is sand, followed by water and then a long swim to the tip of South America.
The first hole at Kapalua, along with the loop from Nos. 10-13 and the two closing holes, offered big gusts because they were on higher ground. All of Waialae feels to be exposed, except for the H-1 along the right side of No. 5 and Keala'olu Avenue right of the eighth and ninth fairways.
“It's going to be harder here,” Thomas said. “The fairways are just so big there. There are so many birdie chances, four par 5s. Even with last week — three of the four days it blew really, really hard — I easily could have gotten to 17- or 18-under par.”
Charles Howell III is playing the Sony Open for the 19th consecutive year, with two runner-up finishes among his 10 appearance in the top 10. He knows the wind of Waialae, and he considers this week an exception.
He also wasn't looking for any sympathy. He's not freezing. And there's something soothing about palm trees, regardless of what kind of weather rolls in.
“People on the East coast in some bad weather will like to see us playing in some wind and rain this year,” he said.