Sentry Tournament of Champions
After it’s brief sabbatical of a month the PGA tour returns to our screens this week with its traditional year opening curtain raiser in Hawaii, The Sentry Tournament of Champions.
As has been the case for many years now this event marks the first of a two week stint in Hawaii as next week will see the first full field event of 2021, The Sony Open in Honolulu.
The Sentry ToC was actually founded way back in 1953 and over the early years was played in Nevada and then California, before relocating to its current venue, The Plantation Course at Kapalua in Maui in 1999 and it has remained here ever since.
Current title sponsor Sentry Insurance took over these duties in 2018 and are currently in the middle of a five year deal.
As is always the case the tournament is open to any player who has posted a PGA Tour victory in the previous calendar year, however this year in addition, due to the abbreviated tour calendar in 2020, the event has been opened up to players who finished in the top 30 of last seasons Fedex Cup rankings, regardless as to whether they posted a victory in the season or not.
Allowing for the change to the eligibility criteria this year 45 players had the opportunity to tee it up at The Plantation Course this week, 28 event winners and 17 players who finished in the top 30 of last season’s Fedex Cup without posting a victory.
Of those 45 players 42 are on display this week with Rory McIlroy and Tyrell Hatton the two choosing not to play. In addition Jim Herman has unfortunately had to withdraw after testing positive for Covid-19.
The market is headed up by world number one and two time Sentry ToC Champion winner Dustin Johnson who makes his first start since landing the Green Jacket last November. He is then followed by the defending champion Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, the 2019 champion Xander Schauffele, Bryson Dechambeau and Patrick Reed.
As noted above 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 under 7600yds long.
The greens are TifEagle Bermuda
The course is unique on the PGA Tour in that it plays to a Par 73 as there are only three par three’s. Allowing for its length 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.
Bigger hitters have certainly had their share of success here over the years as well though with Dustin Johnson posting a 430 yard drive along the way to his win in 2018.
During 2019 the course underwent a major redesign/renovation project under the supervision of the original designers Coore & Crenshaw, which we saw in play in the 2020 edition.
The main aim of this was to firm up the greens and the course in general thus returning it to playing how it was originally designed.
In addition some holes saw bunkers repositioned in order to have more impact on the modern day players.
Finally some holes were lengthened and some shortened to fit more in line with how the ‘Trade Winds’, which effect the course tend to blow.
With the wind playing a fairly significant part in last year’s edition we need to be a little cautious as to how much impact these changes had in bringing us a winning score ten shots higher than the previous year. It is also worth noting that the top three players on last year’s leaderboard, Thomas, Schauffele and Reed were all past champions here so it is probably fair to say that the changes weren’t significant enough to upset the course specialists affinity to the venue.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly for a tournament who’s field, until this year, has been 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 three of the last ten winners, Jonathan Byrd, Steve Stricker and Xander Schauffele, were either not already, or have not subsequently become major champions. [Although surely it is only a matter of time until Xander adds a major to his trophy cabinet].
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 an event, which historically 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.
2020 – Justin Thomas – 11 previous wins
2019 – X Schauffele – 3 previous PGA wins
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
As we can see from this table only two players in the past ten years, Schauffele and Thomas, have 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 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 historically this has not been an event for first timers.
This year of course though we do have the added complication of some non-winners here and it could be that ironically some of those players have more hunger about them than those who posted a win in 2020.
It looks like we are in for a reasonably fine start weather wise to 2021 on the PGA Tour with temperatures hovering around the low 80s and just the possibility of a couple of showers here and there through the week.
Furthermore the wind, which is more often than not a factor here and certainly was last year does not look to be a factor for the first three days at least as nothing much more than 10-15mph in the forecast all week.
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 and who will have spent the festive period with their feet up reflecting on their achievements?
With so many of the games elite teeing it up this week you would have to think the winner will more than likely come from the top of the betting market as is most often the case here.
Having said that there are certainly some question marks over those right at the top of the market in my eyes. Firstly Dustin Johnson has not played since his Masters success so you would think there will be some rust there as he eases his way back in, similarly Dechambeau has had a lengthy break and is yet to produce his best here.
Justin Thomas conversely played in to December most recently winning the Father/Son Challenge alongside his Dad, however by his own admission he has not been overdoing the practice since, while Rahm arrives having changed clubs to Callaway. Finally Xander Schauffele arrives having just got over Covid-19, which he stated left him feeling fatigued and his will have surely disrupted his preparation.
Having weighed everything up I have decided to go with three players this week as follows;
PATRICK REED – 16/1 – 2.5pts e/w - 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED 21st
Allowing for the above the one who appeals to me the most by far from the top of the market is Patrick Reed.
I sided with Captain America in this event last year and he came close to delivering the goods for us before losing out in a play off after a Sunday charge.
One of my main reasons for siding with Reed last year alongside his past form in this event is his overall form at expansive courses such Albany the home of the hero World challenge in the Bahamas and Doral where he won the WGC the first year after the course had undergone a major redesign.
Reed came close to winning the 2019 Hero World challenge on Albany’s large undulating TiffEagle Bermuda greens before running close here a few weeks later.
This time around of course there was no Hero event in December however Patrick occupied himself by taking a trip over to Dubai in an attempt to close out the Race To Dubai title.
Unfortunately things didn’t quite go as Reed would have hoped as he stalled on Sunday slipping down to third place, a finish which handed the R2D to Lee Westwood, however we should not lose sight of the fact that it was another really strong week for him to go alongside some great performances in the Fall. Furthermore his short game, which will be called in to play on this weeks greens was in full working order.
Reed finished 16th on debut here and 25th in 2019 when he was undoubtedly suffering a Masters hangover still, however aside from that he has posted four top six finishes in his other four visits, showing that this is an ideal type of track for him, and he is definitely the play for me to kick start our 2021 campaign.
JOAQUIN NIEMANN – 35/1 – 1.5pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED 2nd
Those who saw my ‘Six To Follow For 2021’ piece over the weekend will know that I highlighted Niemann as a man to keep onside this year and this tournament as one he could do some damage in and I on that basis I am happy to include him this week.
Whether it be the US college link that Niemann doesn’t have or for some other reason the young Chilean’s name seems to get left out of the conversation when the ‘who’s the best Wolff, Hovland or Morikawa’ debate comes up and this is something I find hard to fathom.
At just 22 and over twelve months younger than Hovland and Morikawa Niemann certainly has plenty of time on his side and I fully expect him to go on and fulfil the expectations that his near twelve months as the world’s number one amateur created and more than likely bag a Major Championship or two in the future.
A self-pronounced lover of playing in the wind Joaquin’s low ball flight is ideal for the exposed Kapalua fairways and he thrived here on debut last year to finish fifth.
Granted the winds are not forecast to be as strong this year as last, although they are due to pick up on Sunday, however you never know if the forecast will play out as predicted and I would certainly rather have someone onside this week who is more comfortable in blustery conditions than not.
Niemann finished the 19/20 season with a strong third place at the BMW Championship which bagged him a second trip to East Lake, whilst at the same time qualifying him for this week and he took the confidence gained from that in to the start of his 2020/21 campaign, making the cut in all six starts and posting four top 25 finishes.
I mentioned earlier on that experience here is the key with no player having won on debut here in the past ten years and only two, Thomas and Schauffele, having won on their second starts. What is clear however from the form of the likes of the above two, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed here is that the same players tend to perform well here over and over again. With this in mind and with Niemann having taken a liking to the venue last year I see no reason that he can’t emulate Thomas and Schauffele and bag his second tour title this week.
MARC LEISHMAN – 80/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED 24th
Finally for this week I am going to roll the dice and chance my arm that the New Year could equal new fortunes for Marc Leishman.
There’s no denying that 2020 did not go the way Leishman would have intended on the course as after a win at the Farmers in January and a runner up finish at Bay Hill in March he completely lost his way when the tour returned from its hiatus in June managing nothing better than a 40th place for the remainder of the season if we put to one side his 29th out of 30 at the Tour Championship.
After a horrible week at the BMW that saw the Aussie finish at +30 Leishman did open up at East Lake with a 66 then after a poor first three events to start the 20/21 season he finished 13th at Augusta so his game is still in there somewhere.
When talking about his struggles at the BMW Marc admitted that having not practiced much in the enforced hiatus he had struggled to get motivated after the restart and had also struggled with the absence of fans. From that point of view I am sure he will welcome the fact that there will be some spectators on site this week.
Leishman has finished fourth and seventh on his last two visits to Kapalua so the course clearly sets up well for him. In addition lets not forget he finished second at the 2018 Byron Nelson on the Crenshaw/Coore designed Trinity Forest, which has wide open greens not too dissimilar to here.
There is no doubt we are taking a leap of faith in chancing Leishman this week however this is obviously reflected in his odds and I am happy to take a risk on him in an event, which Aussie’s have great history.