Na wins Sony Open in Hawaii after final-hole birdie

By Sports Desk January 17, 2021

Kevin Na birdied the final hole to win the Sony Open in Hawaii by one stroke on Sunday.

The American carded a five-under 65 in the final round at Waialae Country Club, finishing a stroke clear of Chris Kirk (65) and Joaquin Niemann (66).

Na made a short birdie putt after producing a great chip on the final hole, the birdie sending him to 21 under and victory.

It marked his fifth PGA Tour win and fourth in two and a half years.

"It's a nice feeling. I know it's a Ryder Cup year, it's all positives. I feel great," Na told a news conference after his win.

"It's four seasons in a row I've won, it's a great feeling, nice to get it done early but I'd like to win another one before the season is over."

Behind Kirk and Niemann were Webb Simpson (64), Marc Leishman (65) and overnight leader Brendan Steele (69).

Niemann, who lost a play-off at the Tournament of Champions last week, finished second for the second straight week.

The last player to finish second in back-to-back weeks on the PGA Tour was Simpson in 2019.

Patton Kizzire (64), Collin Morikawa (64), Billy Horschel (65) and Daniel Berger (66) finished tied for seventh at 18 under.

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    Rebuilds require patience and a willingness to accept growing pains and, initially, quite a lot of losing.

    The Carolina Panthers experienced a lot of that in 2020 but, such was their competitiveness in their first year under Matt Rhule, the franchise now appears ready to accelerate the timeline.

    Carolina went 5-11 but a 3-2 start and a lack of blowout defeats fostered hope they can soon be back in postseason contention.

    Where do they need to improve to make that ambition a reality?

    We reflect on their campaign using Stats Perform data and looked ahead to a pivotal offseason that will go a long way to determining whether they will be back in the playoff mix in 2021.


    Offense

    After ending the Cam Newton era, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to be a placeholder at the quarterback position. 

    Reports suggest the Panthers may view his job as the bridge quarterback as being completed, as they are seemingly looking to a potentially more exciting future under center. 

    That is not surprising given how limited the Panthers' passing attack was in 2020. 

    Only two teams had fewer touchdown passes than Carolina's 16, with Bridgewater completing only 41 per cent of his attempts of 21 air yards or more for three touchdowns and five interceptions. 

    Bridgewater was a quarterback more reliant on his receivers' abilities after the catch than his arm strength. The Panthers had 4,129 gross passing yards and 50.7 per cent of that tally was made up of yardage after the catch, well above the league average of 45.6. 

    That is not necessarily a criticism in an NFL where several teams rely heavily on short passing games that focus on the strengths of their receivers in the open field, but it is evident through the lack of downfield success that the Panthers need a more dynamic quarterback if they are to contend. 

    Carolina lost eight games by one score in 2020, with Bridgewater failing to author a single game-winning drive. 

    He threw one touchdown to three interceptions in the fourth quarter last season, further illustrating the need for the Panthers to find a more physically gifted quarterback who can make the clutch throws in the waning moments. 

    Of course, the Panthers might have been more successful in that regard had Christian McCaffrey been available for more than three games. 

    Bereft of the talents of a running back who led the league in scrimmage yards and touchdowns in 2019, the Panthers were 21st in rushing yards per game. 

    They actually slightly improved in terms of rushes of 10 yards or more, recording 47 to the 45 they registered in 2019. However, with Carolina's 64 scoring drives ranked 23rd in the NFL, the Panthers evidently gave defenses little to fear in 2020. 

    That has to change if they are to make the second-year leap under Rhule.

    Defense

    The Panthers spent every pick of the 2020 NFL Draft on defense and, at least in terms of their pass defense, that decision paid dividends. 

    Carolina allowed 6.23 yards per pass play, the 12th-best average in the NFL, but the Panthers were dragged down by a below-par run defense. 

    Indeed, the Panthers gave up 4.75 yards per rush, with just four teams faring worse than Carolina in that regard. 

    And, while teams did not move the ball efficiently through the air against Carolina, the Panthers struggled to keep opponents out of the endzone. 

    Of the 161 opponent drives versus the Panthers, 74 resulted in either a touchdown or a field goal, giving Carolina an opponent scoring efficiency of 46.0 that ranked 27th in the NFL. 

    Yet this youthful unit still showed enough for Rhule and the Panthers to be encouraged going into 2021. 

    Carolina finished 2020 tied-10th in takeaways with 22, third-round pick Jeremy Chinn contributing three of those in an impressive rookie season from the versatile safety. 

    The expected development from him and first-round defensive tackle Derrick Brown provides reason for optimism, though the onus will be on Brown and edge rusher Brian Burns to do more to pressure the quarterback after the Panthers recorded 29 sacks in 2020, only good enough for tied-23rd in the NFL. 

    This inexperienced group was asked to do too much by the offense last season but, if the likes of Chinn, Brown and Burns make the anticipated strides, the defense will have a much better chance of winning games for the Panthers in 2021.

    Offseason

    It's all about the quarterback in Carolina. After reportedly making an offer to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford before he was traded to the Rams, the Panthers are expected to aggressively pursue a deal with the Houston Texans to acquire Deshaun Watson. 

    With the young core they have, the Panthers would instantly become playoff contenders with Watson under center. Failing that, Carolina stands out as a likely destination for one of Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or Trey Lance in the draft. 

    Regardless of whether it is Watson or one of that group of rookies under center in 2021, the Panthers will also need to reinforce their offensive line. 

    Both starting tackles from last season, Russell Okung and Taylor Moton, are scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. 

    Thankfully, the Panthers are in a decent position to re-sign free agents and pursue those from other teams. They will be nearly $40million under an assumed salary cap of $185m. 

    Having gotten little production from the position last season, tight end should be an area the Panthers look to address. Ian Thomas led Carolina tight ends with just 145 receiving yards in 2020. 

    The defense is not the finished article but, after focusing on that side of the ball last year, this offseason is one in which Carolina needs to load up on offense to help the Panthers make the next step.

  • New Orleans Saints: Major changes coming up, with or without Brees New Orleans Saints: Major changes coming up, with or without Brees

    The New Orleans Saints are in limbo.

    Until Drew Brees reveals whether his playing career will continue into a 21st season, New Orleans will not be able to finalise a plan of attack for an extremely challenging offseason.

    With or without Brees, the Saints need to make some significant changes, New Orleans left facing a balancing act between staying competitive and getting under a shrinking salary cap.

    They are under that pressure after one of most talented rosters in the NFL again came up short in the postseason, their playoff hopes ended in the Wild Card round by their NFC South rivals and eventual Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    The lessons learned from that failure will dictate how the Saints attack free agency and the draft this year.

    What can be gleaned from another season in which the Saints excelled but ultimately fell short of expectations? We reflect on their 2020 using Stats Perform data.

    Offense

    The numbers tell a very clear story. In 2020, the Saints' passing offense was not the force it has been in previous years.

    After finishing seventh in net passing yards per game (265.3) in 2019, the Saints finished 19th (234.9) in the same category in 2020.

    They also had nine fewer passing plays of 25 yards or more, recording just 24 having put up 33 in 2019.

    Indeed, this was a season in which the increasing limitations of Brees' arm restricted the upside of the New Orleans attack.

    Brees was 14th in passing yards gained per attempt (7.54) in 2020 but his impact as a downfield thrower was minimal.

    He attempted just 21 passes of 21 air yards or more in his 12 games and completed only nine of them, though five went for touchdowns.

    Should Brees retire, head coach Sean Payton may be tempted to go with Taysom Hill as his replacement in 2021 after he filled in for the 42-year-old in four games in 2020.

    Utility man Hill attempted nine passes of 21 air yards or more and completed five of them for 170 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 140.0, offering hope he could be an upgrade on Brees in that area.

    Though there are concerns over the explosiveness of the passing game, there should be no such worries about their ground attack.

    The Saints ranked eighth in the NFL in rushes of 10 yards or more (60), with 27 of those coming from Alvin Kamara.

    Kamara finished fourth among running backs in scrimmage yards per game with (112.5).

    With or without Brees, the Saints need to find a way to maximise the potency of their passing game so not to waste the prime years of one of the top running backs in the league and ensure they have the firepower to compete in the NFC.

    Defense

    One of the main reasons the Saints were able to contend despite the conservative nature of the passing offense was the strength of their defense.

    The Saints were one of the premier defensive teams in football, allowing opposing offenses to move the ball at a rate of 5.01 yards per play, with only three teams bettering them in that regard.

    New Orleans also had one of the most opportunistic defenses in the league, their 26 takeaways tied for third in the NFL.

    The 92 points scored off those turnovers provided a substantial boost to Brees and the offense, with that resulting in the league's sixth-best tally.

    The Los Angeles Rams (2) were the only team to allow fewer touchdowns of 20 yards or more than the five the Saints conceded, while New Orleans was exceptional at keeping opposing run games in check.

    New Orleans forced 50 negative run plays in 2020, the negative yardage total of minus 121 fourth in the NFL behind the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

    Between their ability to limit big plays, take away the football and make offenses one dimensional through shutting down the run game, the Saints boasted an elite defense last season.

    With uncertainty at the quarterback position, keeping that group together is likely to be pivotal to the Saints' hopes of staying in contention in 2021.

    But for a team whose salary cap situation is the worst in the NFL, that will be easier said than done.

    Offseason

    Assuming the most optimistic estimate of the salary cap being $185million, the Saints are set to be $65m over it as things stand.

    New Orleans look set to suffer after years of stretching the cap to its extreme, and that pain is coming in a year where they have 22 unrestricted free agents.

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    Linebacker Kwon Alexander and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who carry a combined cap hit of over $23m and can be released for a dead cap charge of just $4m, stand out as obvious potential casualties of the financial issues facing the Saints.

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  • Fernandes success would not have been easy for Pogba, says Nani Fernandes success would not have been easy for Pogba, says Nani

    Bruno Fernandes being hailed as the signing who turned around Manchester United's fortunes would have been difficult for Paul Pogba to take, according to Nani.

    Fernandes has received rave reviews for his incredible performances since arriving at Old Trafford from Sporting CP just over a year ago.

    The attacking midfielder has recorded 40 goal involvements – 23 goals and 17 assists – in 41 Premier League appearances, leading him to be touted as the player who can lead United back to the top.

    Former United winger Nani, a four-time Premier League winner, thinks every United squad member would have had to take stock after Fernandes' stunning impact.

    And adapting would have been particularly tough for Pogba, who was previously established as the star man.

    Nani feels Pogba and the rest of the United players have adjusted well over the past year to increasingly incorporate Fernandes' individual brilliance into better team performances and results.

    But he believes the connection between World Cup winner Pogba and Portugal international Fernandes must get stronger still.

    Nani told Stats Perform News: "There are different [types of] players on the field - you have Bruno Fernandes, a smarter attacking player, and Pogba who can do a little bit of both [attacking and defending].

    "Pogba can handle the game a bit for Bruno to go a little bit up [the pitch]. They have to try to have the connection. 

    "It is not easy, when you [Pogba] are the player for the club, the midfield star, and another player arrives to the team and starts performing so well.

    "And then [it is not easy] that everyone starts talking just about the player and, 'He made the team change, he made everything'. 

    "All of that could have a little bit of an impact in every head on the team. 

    "But what I see in the last games, the players adjust to that. They have confirmed [in ther minds] a little bit what Bruno can give to the team.

    "And Bruno is part of the team so now they look like more of a strong team. 

    "So I'm very confident about the next games until the end of the season. I think there will be a surprise to the end of the season because they are still in the Europa League. Let's see."

    Pogba has just over one year left on his current contract and agent Mino Raiola said in December his client wanted to leave United.

    While Raiola later backtracked somewhat during the January transfer window, he insisted he would still push for a transfer at the end of the season, though the club have talked about a new deal.

    Nani was asked whether Pogba's continued presence in the headlines meant he had become a distraction for United.

    "At this moment, I see him as one of the important players at Man United," Nani said about Pogba.

    "But I don't know what he has on his mind, if he wants to leave or if all this news is making some problems in his head.

    "I don't know if he has full concentration on the team, on the games, on the goals of the team. 

    "I saw him when he was struggling with some injuries and then he came back and started playing, he was improving his performance. He was doing well. 

    "He was helping the team, but we know Pogba can do much better, he can do much more because he is a top player in this position. He's not using all his strength, all his qualities. 

    "But if he wants to stay at the club, for sure he will perform much better very soon. He needs to continue to improve his game, his confidence and try to help the team in the way he can."

    Pogba has been out of action for a month since suffering a thigh injury in the dramatic 3-3 draw with Everton.

    While United are unbeaten in seven games without him, four of those contests have been draws, including Wednesday's goalless encounter at Crystal Palace.

    That was their sixth goalless Premier League draw of the season, their joint-most ever in a season, along with 2004-05 and 2016-17.

    It is also the first time United have drawn three consecutive matches 0-0 in all competitions since October 2015, when they were playing under Louis van Gaal.

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