Sentry Tournament of Champions
After it’s brief sabbatical the PGA tour returns to our screens with it’s traditional year opening curtain raiser in Hawaii. A field of 34 will tee it up with Justin Rose, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson the three eligible notables who have decided not to make the trip.
The event has been played since 1999 on the Plantation Course at the Kapalua resort in Maui.
The Plantation Course was co designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore and features wide undulating fairways and larger than average undulating Bermuda Greens.
The course measures just over 7450yds long.
The greens are TiffEagle Bermuda.
The course is unique on the PGA Tour in that it plays to a Par 73. Add to this the fact that it is circa 7400 yards long and you would be forgiven for thinking it would favour bombers, however plenty of average to shorter length hitters have performed well here over the years such as Stricker, Spieth, Reed and Zach Johnson.
Last year a bomber in the form of Dustin Johnson was victorious, posting a 430 yard drive along the way, however one of the shorter hitters on tour Brian Harman came home in 3rd place, whilst one of the longest hitters on tour, Brooks Koepka finished stone last [all be it suffering from a wrist problem], so there is definitely more to Kapalua than just ‘gripping it & ripping it’.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly for a tournament who’s field is made up purely from winners from the previous year over recent years the Sentry ToC has very much become the domain of players from the very top of the game.
This can be seen from the fact that only two of the last ten winners, [J Byrd & S Stricker] were either not already, or have not subsequently become major champions.
An even more striking stat that hit me when looking at the event is the number of starts players had previously made in Kapalua before first tasting victory here.
Let me expand further…. You would think that in event, which is purely open to winners from the previous year and therefore which inevitably includes a bunch of first time winners making their debut here, we would have had some winners over the recent years who were making their first start in the event having posted their first PGA Tour win the previous year.
This though is not the case at all, in fact if we look at the list below showing the past ten winners and how many previous wins they had on the PGA Tour, we can see experience appears to be key.
2018 - D Johnson - 16 previous PGA Wins
2017 - J Thomas – 2 previous PGA wins
2016 - J Spieth – 6 previous PGA wins
2015 - P Reed – 3 previous PGA wins
2014 - Z Johnson – 10 previous PGA wins
2013 - D Johnson – 6 previous PGA wins
2012 - S Stricker – 11 previous PGA wins
2011 - J Byrd – 4 previous PGA wins
2010 - G Ogilvy – 6 previous PGA wins
2009 - G Ogilvy – 4 previous PGA wins
As we can see from this table only one player in the past ten years, J Thomas, has won here on their second visit whilst all of the others had made multiple starts on Maui before getting the job done.
There are two possible reasons for this, first and foremost it could just be a case that course experience, getting to know the large undulating greens here, how the Trade Winds can effect shots etc is key.
Secondly though I do think that it is quite possible when a player tees it up here for the first time they don’t necessarily have their full ‘game head’ on and instead get caught up in the whole ‘I’ve made it to Maui, let’s bring the family for a vacation’ vibe, thus forgetting there is an event to be won.
Either way, whatever the reason, it seems clear that as a rule this is not an event for first timers.
It looks like we are in for a fine, sunny start to the new PGA Tour year as it appears wall to wall sunshine is the order of the day for Kapalua this week.
Wind as always will be a factor to a certain extent, however there isn’t much above 15mph in the forecast for the week.
With not much rain in the lead up either the course is set to play reasonably firm and fast however I would still expect scoring as it is most years to be low.
As I always so though, this could all change!
There is always a fair bit of speculation involved for this first event of the New Year as you can never be quite sure as to how prepared the field will be. Who will come ready to win & who will have spent the festive period with their feet up reflecting on their achievements and will come in to this week with a ‘family vacation’ head on?
Having weighed everything up I have decided to go with four players this week as follows;
JON RAHM – 8-1 - 3pts Win FINISHED 8th
I am starting this year’s picks off by all but copying and pasting my opening write up for the last event of 2018.
Please do be assured though that this is not a case of me [undoubtedly like some of this weeks field] having had my feet up over Christmas and therefore being underprepared for the event, but more a case of the fact that I see strong similarities in the case I made for Rahm at the Hero World Challenge compared to this week.
Prior to The Hero I wrote “Still only 24yrs old to me Rahm still shows impatience on courses that require more of a grind, however he seems to clearly be at his best on tracks which allow him to open his shoulders, be aggressive and require a lot of birdies.
This can be seen by the fact that he won at the Irish Open last year with a total of -24 and the Spanish Open this year with a total of -20.
Looking at that Irish Open win, alongside one of his other wins last year which came at Torrey Pines, it is also clear that Rahm is comfortable on a links style test assuming the wind doesn’t really howl.”
Obviously with his win in the Bahamas The Spaniard rubber stamped this point of view and he will have taken huge confidence from the way he closed that event out in style.
If we then add to the equation the fact that Rahm chased home DJ last year on his debut at Kapalua with a total of -16 and it becomes clear to me that this test, which is very similar to the one offered in the Bahamas, is again write up his street.
As I mentioned earlier there is always a danger that after the win at The Hero Jon put the clubs away and is underprepared this week, however that is the risk you run with any of the field teeing it up in Kapalua and I am therefore happy to take the chance that Rahm will pick up where he left off in 2018 and get his New Year of to a great start.
AARON WISE – 40-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 5 FINISHED 27th
Having said earlier that Kapalua is not as a rule a course where debutants have had too much success there is one ‘Kapalua rookie’ I feel I have to include this week and that is Las Vegas resident Aaron Wise.
Those of you that have read my ‘six to follow’ preview for 2019 will already be aware that I am keen on the thought that the 22yr old will have a big year, and I believe that Kapalua is a course that will give him every opportunity to fly out of the blocks in week one.
My main line of logic in believing this is that Aaron posted his debut PGA tour victory at the AT&T Byron Nelson on the wide open links style fairways of Trinity Forest GC and I cant but help think that Kapalua will remind him very much of the challenge he faced that week.
Both courses were co designed by Crenshaw and Coore and both feature large undulating Bermuda greens.
Basically this will be the closest comparison of a course Aaron has seen since his hugely impressive victory last May and you have to believe that will put him in a really positive mindset for the week.
We saw last year with Jon Rahm that a debutant here can certainly get in the hunt and like Rahm, Wise is a special talent who will rewrite plenty of rule books over the next few years when it comes to past event history and I am expecting Aaron to perform really well this week.
MARC LEISHMAN – 33-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 5 FINISHED T4th
Following on with the Trinity Forest theme my next pick is the man who chased Wise home in Dallas last May, Aussie Marc Leishman.
Leishman of course is a player who is already renowned as a really good exponent of links conditions and it was not surprising that he took to the Coore and Crenshaw design, which is the new home of the Byron Nelson.
After that second place finish in May Marc cooled of on the PGA Tour through the summer, however he found his touch again to win the CIMB Classic in October in fine style and was 2nd to Cam Smith in the Aussie PGA just before Christmas so he is clearly in good touch at the moment.
Leishman has made two previous visits to Kapalua and was 7th here last year.
As much as a win this week for our previous selection Aaron Wise would go against the historical trends a win this week for the 35yr old Leishman would fit right in the profile of past winners.
Finally let’s not forget that in years gone by this event has proved a very happy hunting ground for Australian players with Appleby and Ogilvy both multiple winners here and this is undoubtedly due to the firm, fast, links style conditions, which tend to be experienced here being very much a home from home for them.
In addition it is more than possible that the Australian players who have teed it up back on home soil in December arrive here more attuned and ready to go than a lot of their American counterparts.
As I mentioned earlier in the weather forecast we are set fare for this week so we should see firm, fast conditions again, which will be right in Leishman’s wheelhouse and I am more than happy to have him on side at what I think is a very generous 33-1.
KEEGAN BRADLEY – 50-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 5 FINISHED 27th
Keegan Bradley returns to Kapalua for the first time in six years on the back of his win at the BMW Championship in October.
On his first visit to the course back in 2012 Bradley closed with a round of 65 for 16th place whilst the following year he in the rain shortened event he finished 4th. Clearly therefore Kapalua is a course Keegan is reasonably comfortable on.
Bradley has proven over the years on numerous occasions, most noticeably of course when winning the PGA Championship and the WGC Bridgestone, that he is the man for a bigger event and even in his winless years he popped in the frame in Majors, WGC’s and higher profile PGA tour events such as The Farmers Insurance Open, The Northern Trust and the API.
With regards to the Farmers it’s worth noting that Bradley posted back to back top 5s there over recent years and this is of course played on another coastal track, Torrey Pines, where our headline pick this week Jon Rahm secured his first PGA Tour title.
As well proving Bradley can handle himself by the coast these back to back top 5s highlight another interesting trait of the 32yr old, which is that he repeatedly tends to perform well on the same courses. This can be seen by his multiple big finishes at Firestone, The Byron Nelson and the CIMB over the years as well as at the aforementioned Torrey Pines.
The logic here therefore is that whilst it has been a good few years since Keegan was in the field at Maui, if it is as I believe a course that fits his eye he is likely to perform well here again.
Since his win in the BWM Bradley seems to have held his form well and he has added a further top 6 finish to his name at the WGC HSBC Champions.
I am therefore happy to take a chance at a juicy e/w price that this proven big time player will start the year of with big performance in Maui.