The new PGA Tour year begins in Hawaii where the wide open spaces of Kapalua provide the perfect venue to shake off those winter blues. Words and stats by Andy Swales...
"Fairways are generously wide and the greens are some of the largest in professional golf, making it the perfect venue to start the New Year. For those feeling a little rusty following the festive period, there is plenty of margin for error between tee and green!"
It's a Tournament of Champions with a difference. For one year only, organisers have decided to extend invitations to a number of golfers who did not win PGA Tour events during the calendar year of 2020.
Because three months of tournament action was completely wiped out due to lockdown (March 12-June 11), following the outbreak of Covid-19, the decision was taken to invite everyone who qualified for last season's Tour Championship - even those who failed to win an official FedEx Cup tournament between January 1st and December 31st.
This means 17 non-champions were offered the rare opportunity to compete in a tournament normally reserved for winners-only.
However, everything else remains untouched - same sponsor, same venue, same spot on the calendar.
The change of qualification criteria means this week's Sentry Tournament of Champions will be the largest in the event's history.
As many as 42 of the 45 players who were offered invitations will be teeing-up at Kapalua's Plantation Course this Thursday. The trio who have opted to stay away are Tyrrell Hatton, Jim Herman and Rory McIlroy.
All in all, eight of the world's top 10 have made the trip to Hawaii for the traditional opener of the PGA Tour year - as well as 17 of the leading 25.
In recent years, it has been a tournament dominated by the game's elite. Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas have each won it twice, while other champs are Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Zach Johnson.
Since 2008, the only surprise winner was Jonathan Byrd who had teed-up ranked 121 in the world, when winning 10 years ago.
Many of the 42 players have not competed since The Masters in mid-November, one exception being Reed who finished tied-third in Dubai on December 13th.
The last 10 instalments have all been won by Americans, while the overseas challenge will be led by Spain's Jon Rahm and Norwegian Viktor Hovland.
Hovland ended the year in style by winning the Mayakoba Classic in early December, before tieing-for-third in Dubai seven days later
Kapalua's Plantation Course is a coastal layout in the north-west of the volcanic island of Maui.
It was built on the slopes of the West Maui Mountains, offering superb views of the Pacific Ocean on the majority of holes.
It is one of the most undulating venues on the PGA Tour schedule, and there are seven holes more than 500 yards in length.
From its highest point to the lowest, there is an elevation difference of approximately 500 feet, with this spacious course covering more than 300 acres.
Fairways are generously wide and the greens are some of the largest in professional golf, making it the perfect venue to start the New Year.
For those feeling a little rusty following the festive period, there is plenty of margin for error between tee and green!
The already-sizeable putting surfaces were made even larger during an upgrade during 2019.
This nine-month facelift was undertaken by Plantation's original designers, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.
Since opening in 1991, the general playing conditions of the course had changed considerably.
Over almost three decades, fairways and greens had become much softer, making it easier for top-class professionals to fire high trajectory iron shots straight at the pin.
The main purpose of Crenshaw and Coore's revamp was to re-establish those original firmer surfaces on and around the greens, so that the ball would run faster, thus making it more difficult to play target golf.
In other words, organisers wanted to see pros hit lower shots which made use of the venue's many slopes, with the ball skipping and running over the turf towards the target, rather than taking an aerial route directly at the flag.
Check out the latest betting ahead of this week's Sentry Tournament of Champions
These had been the original playing conditions during the early years, after Kapalua took over as tournament host in 1999.
The entire course was re-turfed with a different strain of Bermuda grass, while all putting surfaces and bunkers were re-built.
A number of greens were enlarged, thus creating additional pin positions, with some contours calmed.
And at last year's tournament these changes certainly did the trick.
In 2020, the 72-hole winning total was the highest it had been for 13 years - and by some considerable margin too.
Between 2009 and 2019, the champion's average round score was 67.25 while, 12 months ago, winner Justin Thomas fired 278 (69.5).
Over the years, the Plantation Course has yielded a higher percentage of successfully located fairways and greens than most courses on the PGA Tour.
This is due to its fairways and greens being wider and larger than at the majority of venues. This comes as no surprise, nor should the fact that the average number of putts taken on these large greens is greater too.
Yet Crenshaw and Coore's changes brought about some other interesting stats. Instead of seeing a reduction in accuracy on the faster running and bouncier fairways, the opposite happened.
In 2020, over 80% of fairways were hit off the tee, compared to the previous four years (2016-19), when it ranged between 65-76%.
Over the four days, players drove the ball shorter distances - as golfers presumably opted to play a little safer - which in turn meant a similar reduction in the number of Greens Hit in Regulation. And the average number of Putts (GiR) crept back up to 1.80 for the week too.
Twitter: Andy Swales@GolfStatsAlive
Last 10 Weeks / Kapalua Form (2011-20)
|Sung Jae Im||14||MC||2||50||41|
|Sung Jae Im|
|No. of Starters:||34||33||34||32||32||34||30||30||27||33|