Sentry Tournament of Champions
After its 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 2023, 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 this year a change to the eligibility criteria has been implemented with all players who finished in the top 30 of the Fedex Cup rankings but did not post a victory in the calendar year also now eligible. This change was put in place on a ‘one off’ basis in 2021 following on from the more limited schedule played in 2020 due to the Covid hiatus.
Last year however we returned to the traditional ‘winners only’ criteria, however this year as a part of the revamp of the PGA Tour schedule a permanent change has been made to include all of the previous seasons top 30 regardless as to whether they are winners or not.
The players who have benefited from this change this year are Corey Conners, Brian Harman, Viktor Hovland, Sungjae Im, Collin Morikawa, Adam Scott, Scott Stallings, Sahith Theegala, Aaron Wise and Cameron Young.
Allowing for this 39 players are teeing it up this week with world No 1 Rory McIlroy choosing not to make the trip.
The market is headed up clearly by Jon Rahm. Rahm is then followed by Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas who all hover between 9/1 and 12/1.
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 to go with 11 par fours and four par fives. 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. Well last year with conditions again co operating we saw the course taken apart with Cameron Smith pipping Jon Rahm with a 34- under total!
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 two of the last ten winners, Harris English 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.
2022 – Cameron Smith – 3 previous wins
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
As we can see from this table only three players in the past ten years, English, 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.
It is also worth noting that one of those three 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. With motivation then potentially more of a driver to the ‘non winners’ from the previous year it is perhaps worth looking closely at the players who are teeing it up this week despite having not won in 2022.
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 six years, Sungjae Im in 2021 and Jon Rahm in 2018.
It looks like we are in for a reasonably fine start weather wise to 2023 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 however we could see some gusts of 15mph+ on Friday, which added to dryer conditions compared to last year should mean that we won’t have quite as much of a birdie fest as we did in 2022.
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 – 11/1 – 2.5pts e/w - 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED WD INJURED
With the expectancy that the winner this week will come from one of the games 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 who has done everything but win here is naturally the man to beat and you’d expect two time champion here Justin Thomas to once more be in the thick of things.
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 will play it safe for my main selection from the top of the market and side with Xander Schauffele.
Ultimately you can easily make a case for the majority in the top five or six of the betting and the case for Schauffele is as straightforward as they come.
Firstly of course we only need to look at the 28yr old’s form figures here of a win, a runner up finish [a play-off defeat] and another top five in his past four visits to know how comfortable he is on the Plantation Course and if we discard his debut here it is only really last year’s 12th place, which has marginally blotted the copy book.
In hindsight Xander’s 12th place last year was not unsurprising as he had admitted in the lead up to that week that he had not been happy with his game at the back end of 2021, something reflected as a whole in his results since he had lifted the Gold Medal at the Olympics, and he was therefore using the week as more of a spring board to hopefully pushing on in the West Coast events to follow. Meanwhile we shouldn’t forget that the previous year when he finished fifth his preparation was hugely hampered by a bout of covid over the Christmas/New Year break and he arrived in Maui having got little to no work in prior.
This year of course we have a very different story, healthy to the best of our knowledge, Xander enjoyed the New Year in Maui and will now be relishing getting stuck in to what must be one of his favourite tracks on the back of a hugely successful 2022, which saw him return to the winners circle for the first time since his 2019 triumph here, lifting two solo trophies along with the Zurich Pairs trophy. Furthermore if we include his fourth place finish at the Hero Challenge Schauffele finished the year with four straight top tens so his confidence should still be riding high.
In summary then while there is always a degree of speculation in this event Xander looks as solid a proposition as any at the top of the market and with the each way safety net as well he is the man for me this week.
COLLIN MORIKAWA – 20/1 – 1.5pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED 2nd
Next up this week for me is Collin Morikawa.
We saw in 2021 how the motivation of playing here despite not having won in the previous season can focus a player in the shape of Harris English and my hunch is we could see a strongly motivated Morikawa this week as he looks to get back in the winners circle after a disappointing winless 2022.
Let’s be clear here it’s not a case of Collin’s game having ‘fallen off a cliff’ last season hence he made it to East Lake on the back of nine top ten finishes including top fives at the Masters and US Open, however there is no doubt that in the second part of the 21/22 season in particular he struggled for any real consistency.
Towards the end of 2022 though there were signs from Collin that things were starting to get back on track with his trade mark tee to green game firing nicely, with it is worth noting, a slightly tweaked set of new irons in the bag, which he spoke very positively about when finishing sixth at the Hero World Challenge in his last start of the year.
Talking of the Hero event and as social media followers may have noted Collin got married prior to that event and was due to honeymoon after that week. The one slight concern then is how prepared will the 25yr old be coming in to this week? My hunch on this front though is that he will be ready to hit the ground running as when talking at the Mayakoba, an event he added to his schedule in the Fall and performed nicely in, he said he was using the last few events of the year to get ready to “come out swinging in 2023” and “to be ready come the beginning of January”.
Add this to the fact that with Morikawa having well documented ties to Maui through his family heritage with his Grand Parents having owned a restaurant there, meaning he is always keen to perform well in Hawaii and I expect him to be sharp. Furthermore it may just be that with the distraction of the build up to the wedding now out of the way he is in a better mindset to fully focus on the ‘day job’.
All of the above re weddings and preparation is of course speculation however returning to the ‘meat and drink’ and what we do know is that Collin has finished seventh, seventh and fifth here in three visits so it is clear he is comfortable on the track with his strong iron play giving him plenty of looks. Let’s not also forget that in 2021 he headed in to Sunday one shot off the lead and with a great opportunity to win before fading slightly on the final day. If we then add in that he has an Open Championship on his resume and a victory at another wide open venue with a links type feel to it, Concession, then it is clear that he relishes this kind of test.
Ultimately with Collin though what it all comes down to of course is the flat stick, with a 22/23 putting rank to date of 222nd telling its own story, however we can take some confidence from the fact that he had solid putting weeks here each of the past two years.
With Morikawa’s form having been somewhat patchy compared to the other big names here his odds have drifted slightly accordingly however I expect him to perform strongly here once again and he makes plenty of each way appeal at the price.
BRIAN HARMAN – 40/1 – 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED 16th
Finally this week I can’t resist chancing Brian Harman.
I noted above that in a similar vein to Harris English’ success here in 2021 it could be worth keeping a close eye on the players in the field who are teeing it up this week despite not having won in 2022 as they may just have some extra motivation and Harman is certainly one such player who fits that bill.
The 35yr old earnt his place at the years curtain raiser courtesy of a really strong 21/22 campaign, which saw him post seven top ten finishes including a sixth place in the Open at St Andrews, which of course links very nicely here courtesy of Cameron Smith who won both events last year. In addition in relation to Smith it is also worth noting that Harman posted back to back top ten’s at Sawgrass in 2019 and 2021 so we have another nice link there with the Aussie.
Following on from his strong 21/22 season Brian has certainly not rested on his laurels as after a solid couple of efforts to open his campaign he notched back to back runner up finishes at Mayakoba and then at the RSM, so he has basically done everything but win in 2022, something I am sure he will now be determined to put right.
Looking at the Georgia Bulldog’s history here and although he has not tee’d it up in the event since 2018 this will be his third trip here and after a solid 17th on debut in 2015 he finished third here on his most recent visit so we know he can perform on the track. It is also worth noting that on that occasion he had finished the previous calendar year in similarly strong form so there is a precedent for Brian to finish one year strongly and then pick up where he left off after the break.
Known as a strong putter and at his best on the Bermuda greens if we do see another low scoring putting contest like last year then Harman should be right at home, while as a resident of St Simons Island with a strong pedigree on coastal layouts we also know that if the wind picks up Brian will not be fazed.
To sum up in an event that has seen plenty of shorter hitters thrive over the years the lefty makes plenty of appeal I am keen to side with the gritty Harman to step up to the plate this week.