The PGA Tour resumes again on Thursday with last year's winners looking to kick off 2018 with another victory. Read our man's detailed preview of the Sentry Tournament of Champions here...
"The market is struggling to split the Open Champ, Jordan Spieth, and the US PGA winner and defending champion, Justin Thomas, but I just prefer the former."
The Sentry Tournament of Champions is a limited field event restricted to those who won on the PGA Tour in the previous calendar year.
The tournament was first staged in 1953 and between 1986 and 2013 it was the traditional season opener but in 2013 the PGA Tour switched to its current wraparound format, with each season starting in the autumn, so it now appears about a quarter of the way through the season.
Plantation Course at Kapalua, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii.
Par 73, 7452 yards
Stroke index in 2017 - 70.38
Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the Plantation Course opened in 1991 and it's the only par 73 on the PGA Tour rota. It's a long but easy wind-exposed course with big elevation changes, wide and severely sloping fairways and large Bermuda greens that usually run at just 10 on the stimpmeter. Strong winds can protect the course but if the breeze doesn't get up, Kapalua offers up very low scoring.
Jordan Spieth won with a 30-under-par total in 2016 but that didn't even set the tournament record. Ernie Els got it to -31 in 2003!
This will be the 20th staging in-a-row at Kapalua.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 23:00 on Thursday, Friday and Sunday but 20:00 on Saturday (UK and Ireland time)
Last Five Winners
2017 - Justin Thomas -22
2016 - Jordan Spieth -30
2015 - Patrick Reed -21 (Playoff)
2014 - Zach Johnson -19
2013 - Dustin Johnson -16 (54 holes)
What Will it Take to Win the Sentry TOC?
Justin Thomas ranked third for Driving Distance when he won last year and the two that ranked first and second, Dustin Johnson and Tony Finau, both finished inside the top-ten but DD is often an irrelevant stat and it was in 2016...
As was the case last year, there were only 32 in the line-up and of the first nine on the final leaderboard, only one player, Brooks Koepka, who finished tied for third, ranked inside the top-ten for DD. The winner, Spieth, ranked 17th and that was the sixth time in eight years that the winner had ranked no better than 15th.
It may be a long track but driving distance is an irrelevance and so is driving accuracy. The fairways are wide and the rough minimal. Last year's winner ranked 17th for DA, the runner-up 23rd and Dustin Johnson and Brendan Steele finished tied for sixth ranking 28th and 30th for DA respectively and remember, there were only 32 in the line-up! In 2016, the first five home all ranked 12th or worse for Driving Accuracy and in 2015, four of the first five ranked 20th or worse for DA.
We can completely ignore the driving stats and even though the first and second ranked second and third for Greens In Regulation 12 months ago, that isn't a key stat either. Hitting the larger than average greens is clearly easier here than anywhere else. Dustin Johnson (in round four) and Patrick Reed (in round two) both hit all 18 in regulation for the first time in their careers on the PGA Tour last year so that's not a key stat to get hung up on but Scrambling, Putts Per Green in Regulation and Putting Average are.
Thomas only ranked 12th for Scrambling last year but the first two home in 2016 ranked third and first for Scrambling and nine of the ten winners prior to 2016 ranked first or second. To win at Kapalua you need a fantastic touch around the green and you also need a red-hot putter...
The last 13 winners have all ranked inside the top four for Putts Per Green in Regulation (Thomas ranked fourth), the last two winners have both topped the Putting Average stats, and ten of the last 12 winners have had a Putting Average ranking of fourth or better.
Kapalua is very exposed and it gets very windy so great wind exponents do well here.
Is There an Angle In?
Next week's event, the Sony Open, offers up the best angle in. Thomas doubled up at the Sony 12 months ago and he joined an illustrious list of players that have recently won both this event and the Hawaiian-staged Sony Open.
Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson have all won the two tournaments in recent times and there are numerous examples of players playing well at both venues. Brandt Snedeker finished third here and second at the Sony a week later, one year after Walker had finished second here before defending the title at Waialae (traded at just [1.09] here before getting beat).
Back in 2015, Zach Johnson offered some insight as to why Sony Open winners do well here when he said that although the tracks are very different in style, the winds are very similar and he felt they played alike as a result.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Course experience is very important and debutants have a poor record. Sergio Garcia and shock winner, Daniel Chopra, are the only debutants to win here. Last year's winner had only played here once before and he'd only finished 21st but the experience gained was clearly helpful.
Defending champions often fare well and multiple event winners are relatively common too. Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Steve Stricker really should have won this at least twice (Stricker arguably three times) and Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods have both doubled up fairly recently. Geoff Ogilvy won the event back-to-back in 2009 and 2010 and Stuart Appleby won it three times in-a-row between 2004 and 2006.
The last seven winners have all been American but I don't think that's significant given that prior to 2011, an overseas player won for nine years in-a-row.
This is an extraordinarily hard venue at which to play catch up and yet again, last year's winner was up with the pace all the way. Thomas sat tied for second after round one, he was tied for the lead after round two, and he led by two with a round to go.
Sergio Garcia, in 2002, and Stuart Appleby, in 2005, both overcame slow starts but every other winner at this venue hasn't been any further than three strokes off the lead after the first round. And it's well worth pointing out that the wind was up in both 2002 and 2005 and that helped the two winners considerably. In benign conditions it's virtually impossible to make up ground on the leaders.
Patrick Reed led after round one two years ago, with Spieth sitting second, and after a further three days of competition all that affectively happened was that the pair switched places. A year earlier, the two play-off protagonists, Reed and Walker, were tied third and just two off the lead after round one and neither of them were ever outside the top-five on the leaderboard. Kapalua is a very hard place to make up ground.
The market is struggling to split the Open Champ, Jordan Spieth, and the US PGA winner and defending champion, Justin Thomas, but I just prefer the former.
Spieth was outhustled for the title here by the experienced Zach Johnson in 2014 before he hacked up by fully eight strokes on his next appearance in 2016. He started too slowly to compete 12 months ago (sat tied 22nd after round one) but still scythed through the field to finished third. He loves the venue and if he starts well he'll be hard to beat.
Thomas put his disappointing debut in 2016 (finished 21st) well behind him when winning easily last year and who's to say he won't kick off 2018 in the same fashion as he kicked off 2017, or how he ended 2017. Following his maiden major success at Quail Hollow in August, he also won the Dell Technologies Championship in September and the CJ Cup in Korea in October. And he also finished second in the Tour Championship at East Lake.
Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler are the only other players trading at a single-figure price and both make less appeal than the front two in the market.
Johnson's Plantation Course form figures read a respectable 11-16-9-1-6-10-6 and Fowler's two attempts here have yielded a sixth and a fifth place finish. DJ's success came in a weather-shortened 54 hole edition and the only other occasion he's seriously contended was when he defended the title in 2014. He was tied for the lead with Spieth with a round to go on that occasion but a sloppy 73 saw him eventually finish in a four-way tie for sixth. Sixth and fifth looks decent for Fowler but he didn't contend on either occasion and he was well beaten.
As tempting as it is to get stuck in after the long Christmas break, this is not a tournament to throw cash at before the off. Knowing who is and who isn't in form is a guessing game and with the in-running trends so strongly favouring the frontrunners, getting stuck in in-running is most definitely the way to go so I'm keeping my powder dry.
I could have very easily began the year without a pre-event pick but Brian Harman's Scrambling and Putting stats from last year were strong enough to tempt me in with a tiny pre-tournament wager.
Brian Harman @ [38.0]
I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter