Sentry Tournament of Champions
After it’s brief sabbatical of a month or so 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 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 unlike last year, where a tweak was made due to the covid 19 hiatus players who finished in the top 30 of the Fedex Cup rankings but did not post a victory in the calendar year are not eligible. This means no Dustin Johnson here for the first time in over five years.
The only slight exception to this is Xander Schauffele who although he did not win on the PGA Tour in 2021 gets an exemption based on his Olympic triumph.
Allowing for this there are 40 players eligible with only Rory McIlroy choosing not to tee it up meaning we are left with a field of 39.
The market is headed up by world number one Jon Rahm. Rahm is then followed by two time champion here Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Bryson Dechambeau and Viktor Hovland who are all at 12/1 or shorter.
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. Coore and Crenshaw are also noted as the designers of Trinity Forest, which briefly held the Byrin Nelson for a couple of years.
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.
I noted last year that with the wind playing a fairly significant part in the 2020 edition we had to be a little cautious as to how much impact the course changes had in bringing us a winning score ten shots higher than the previous year and this indeed turned out to be the case as the 2021 edition saw normal scoring service resumed with Harris English triumphing with a 25- under total.
It is also worth noting that the top three players on the 2020 leaderboard, Thomas, Schauffele and Reed were all past champions here while Thomas and Schauffele were prominent again in 2021 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 last 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, Harris English, 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.
2021 – Harris English – 2 previous wins
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
As we can see from this table five players in the past ten years, English, Schauffele, Thomas, Spieth and Reed, 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.
It is also worth noting that one of those five winners who have triumphed on their second visit, Harris English last year, had not won in the previous season and was eligible based on his top thirty Fedex Cup finish. From that point of view he was not arriving in Maui with the ‘first time winners’ mindset as noted above but rather with a hunger to post his first win since 2013 on the back of a really solid 2020.
Finally in a continuation of the ‘experience counts here’ mantra by my reckoning only two first time players here have posted a top five finish in the past five years, Sungjae Im last year and Jon Rahm in 2018.
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 early part of the week.
The wind, which is more often than not a factor here doesn’t look to be a huge factor as it was a couple of years ago however at the time of writing there is enough in the forecast to show it will give the players something to think about with 15-20mph gusts possible.
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?
Having weighed everything up I have decided to go with three players this week as follows;
XANDER SCHAUFFELE – 14/1 – 3pts e/w - 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED 12th
With the expectancy that the winner this week will come from one of the games truly elite players who sit near the head of the market it really is tricky to try and separate the chances of some of those near the top of the betting.
Rahm and Morikawa make obvious appeal and I’d be amazed if two time champion here Justin Thomas were not in the thick of things again come the weekend, particularly now that Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay is on the bag full time.
Ultimately though with so many potential winners at the head of the betting and with plenty of unknowns with regards to players preparation coming in to the first week of the year I prefer to stick with each way selections this week, particularly with a generous six places on offer, and there is just enough juice in Xander Schauffele’s price on that basis to make him the selection from the top end of the market.
Like I said before you can easily make a case for the majority in front of Xander in the betting and the case for the Olympic Champion is equally straightforward.
Firstly of course we only need to look at the 28yr old’s form figures here of 5 2 1 over the past three years to now how comfortable he is on the Plantation Course. Basically after his ‘sighter’ on debut here in 2018 when he was 22nd he has posted a win and finished in the frame on all three visits. In addition as plenty will remember he really should have triumphed here again on defence in 2020 before ultimately losing out to Thomas in a play-off.
By comparison Schauffele’s 2021 effort here was lacklustre as he ‘only’ finished fifth, however lets not forget that his preparation last year was hampered by a bout of covid over the Christmas/New Year break and he arrived here having got little to no work in prior. Allowing for this I will take the positives from his fifth place, which rubberstamped to me again that he can thrive on this track even when not at a 100%.
Xander owed his place in last years field to the fact that top 30 finishes from the previous seasons Fedex Cup were awarded a start here regardless as to whether they had posted a win in 2020. This year the format reverts to the historical norm of ‘winners only’ however Xander arrives in Maui in somewhat odd circumstances as although he remains winless on the PGA Tour since his 2019 triumph here he has been granted an exemption based on his Olympic triumph last summer.
My hunch then is that Schauffele will be hugely motivated this week to bag that long overdue fifth PGA Tour title, which has eluded him for the past three years and I see that as big positive this week. After all lets not forget that last years winner Harris English was one of the ‘non winners’ who got in to the field through their Fedex Cup finish and he had the hunger to build on that and post the win.
Xander’s form at the back end of 2021 was typical of his year as a whole. He rounded out the 20/21 season with a fifth place at one of his other favourite venues, Eastlake, before posting a couple of solid top 30s to start the new season. Rested now and hopefully much better prepared than last year I expect Xander to be raring to go this week and I am keen to have him onside.
SUNGJAE IM – 25/1 – 2pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED 8th
I mentioned earlier only two debutants here had cracked the top five in the past five years and one of those Sungjae Im is a player I am really keen on this week.
After a really solid start to 2021, which saw Im post his fifth place here and make nine straight strokeplay weekends in the lead up to Augusta after a really poor Masters Sungjae lost his way through the early part of summer before getting back on track towards the end of the season.
Sungjae then picked up where he left off by starting the 21/22 campaign really strongly and he duly bagged his second tour title in Las Vegas at the Shriners.
The young Korean has not been seen on the course since Houston in November where he finished 19th so, as we are with all players this week, we are leaving plenty to trust as to how prepared he will be. That said and with no disrespect meant, Im does not strike me as the type of character who will have put his clubs away completely to party over the holiday period and I expect him to be prepared and ready to go. Let’s not also forget that last year he would have been very much entitled to rest on his laurels over the break having posted his maiden win at The Honda and a runner up finish in the Fall Masters but he arrived here in good shape.
Looking at that performance last year from Sungjae and it is hugely encouraging for his return this week that he lead the field in 2021 here from tee to green. With his touch around the greens that week also good the one area that let him down was the putter for which he ranked 35th. As mentioned earlier though the greens are tough for debutants here to get to grips with and I expect a player who normally thrives on Bermuda surfaces to perform much better here with the flat stick second time around.
With the likes of Morikawa and Hovland dominating the conversation of the new young breed in golf at the moment it is easy to forget that at 23yrs old Im is actually a year younger than this duo and while he is of course lagging behind Morikawa in the big win stakes he is certainly on a par with Hovland.
As already noted it is unusual for players to win here on their second visit but not unheard of as Schauffele showed in in 2019 and I see no reason Sungjae can’t match that achievement.
From that point of view then Sungjae looks cracking each way value at the odds this week and with a big week expected I am keen to be onboard.
CAMERON DAVIS – 125/1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED 10th
Finally for this week with the layers dangling six each way places I can’t resist a roll of the dice on one debutant Cameron Davis.
My hunch for Davis this week is pretty much that, a hunch, however ever since the list of eligible players was first published my eyes have kept being drawn to him as a player who I think will take to the Plantation Course.
Longer than average but inaccurate off the tee Davis has the perfect long game to thrive here and if you add that to his strong putter when on song and ability to go low he really should thrive here.
Cameron’s game remains very much ‘hit and miss’ with consistency still not really his strong point however a trawl through his results whenever he has tee’d it up by the coast over the past two years on the PGA Tour shows that he is remarkably consistent when the sea is visible and the wind is in play. In fact in twelve coastal starts since the beginning of 2020 he has only missed two cuts, which have both come at the RSM Classic. Furthermore in that time he has posted a top ten in Hawaii at the Sony Open when the wind was really a factor, and an eye catching eighth place at the Honda Classic at PGA National, which certainly in my eyes links well here.
Another thing Davis has going for him this week is of course his nationality in that Australians have a tremendous record here with Geoff Ogilvy winning twice here and Stuart Appleby posting three consecutive wins here from 2004.
The fact that Aussie’s have fared well here over the years is probably down to two things, firstly that they would often arrive ‘game sharp’ from their summer season and secondly that they are renowned to be great wind players and as a former Australian Open Champion brought up in Sydney, Davis certainly ticks that latter box.
Finally since being on tour it is noticeable that Cameron’s best efforts tend to come in low scoring events, where his aggressive play and ability to make birdies in bunches come to the fore.
Last season for example alongside his win, which came at the Rocket Mortgage Classic with an 18- under total, his next best effort of third at the Amex came with a 20- under total, while he was also sixth with a -16 number at the Sanderson Farms in 2020.
As is often the way there is no doubt that Davis has struggled slightly since his win in July with his start to 21/22 of three missed cuts in five far from ideal, however he has enough class about him to pop up at big odds on tracks that suit him and at three figure odds I am happy to risk him to go well this week.