The PGA Tour is back and 34 of last year's winners are looking to kick off 2019 with another victory. Read Steve's Sentry Tournament of Champions here...
"Since Appleby won from off the pace in 2005, 12 of the 13 winners have been inside the top five places and within two of the lead after round one and the odd man out, Ogilvy in 2010, was only three off the lead. Kapalua is a very hard place to make up ground."
The Sentry Tournament of Champions is a limited field event restricted to those that 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.
Not all the PGA Tour winners take part and it's disappointing to see Tiger Woods and world number two, Justin Rose, both absent but all three major winners, Patrick Reed, Francesco Molinari and Brooks Koepka, are present, as well as the defending champion and world number three, Dustin Johnson, so it's a cracking event to kick off the year.
Plantation Course at Kapalua, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii.
Par 73, 7,452 yards
Stroke index in 2018 - 71.22
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!
The first two holes were the trickiest on the course last year but they only averaged 0.17 and 0.18 strokes over par and half of the holes averaged under par. The four par fives (the fifth, ninth, 15th and 18th) were the easiest and they collectively averaged just 4.52.
This will be the 21st staging in-a-row at Kapalua.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 23:00 on Thursday, Friday and Sunday but 21:00 on Saturday (UK and Ireland time)
Last Five Winners
2018 - Dustin Johnson -24
2017 - Justin Thomas -22
2016 - Jordan Spieth -30
2015 - Patrick Reed -21 (Playoff)
2014 - Zach Johnson -19
What Will it Take to Win the Sentry TOC?
As he'd done when he won the title for the first time in 2012, Dustin Johnson ranked second for Driving Distance last year and the 2017 winner, Justin Thomas, ranked third for DD but bombing it off the tee isn't essential. Brian Harman finished third 12 months ago when ranking 27th for DD and Zach Johnson only ranked 23rd when he won here in 2014 but I'd fractionally favour length over accuracy from the tee...
The fairways are wide and the rough minimal and Driving Accuracy is pretty much an irrelevant stat. DJ ranked 18th 12 months ago, the runner-up, Jon Rahm, ranked 26th and Hideki Matsuyama, who finished tied for fourth, ranked 33rd. In 2017, the winner, Thomas, ranked 17th for DA, the runner-up 23rd and Dustin Johnson and Brendan Steele, who finished tied for sixth, ranked 28th and 30th for DA respectively and there were only 32 in the line-up! In 2016, the first five home all ranked 12th or worse for DA and in 2015, four of the first five home ranked 20th or worse for DA.
We can basically ignore the driving stats and even though the first and second ranked second and third for Greens In Regulation two years ago, that isn't a key stat either. Harman, who finished third last year, ranked number one for GIR but the first two home ranked eighth and 17th and three of the last five winners have ranked 11th or worst for GIR.
Hitting the larger than average greens is clearly easier here than anywhere else. DJ (in round four) and Patrick Reed (in round two) both hit all 18 greens in regulation for the first time in their careers on the PGA Tour two years ago so that's not a key stat to get hung up on but Par 4 Scoring, Scrambling, Putts Per Green in Regulation and Putting Average are...
Only two of the last six winners have ranked first for Par 5 Scoring but four of the six ranked first for Par 4 Scoring. The first three home 12 months ago ranked sixth, third and first for Scrambling, and Rickie Fowler, who finished tied for fourth, ranked second. Thomas only ranked 12th two years ago 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.
So, to win at Kapalua you need a fantastic touch around the green and you also need a red-hot putter - the last 14 winners have all ranked inside the top four for Putts Per Green in Regulation (DJ ranked second), the last three winners have all topped the Putting Average stats, and 11 of the last 13 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. The early forecasts suggest the wind will blow on Thursday and Friday before dropping over the weekend.
Is There an Angle In?
Next week's event, the Sony Open, offers up the best angle in. Thomas doubled up at the Sony two years 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 1.091/11 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 2008 winner, Daniel Chopra, are the only debutants to win here.
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 DJ, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods have all 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 eight winners have all been American but that might not be too 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. DJ sat fourth and just two off the lead after round one, he trailed by a stroke in third at halfway and he was in front and leading by two after three rounds before going on to win by six. A year earlier, Thomas had sat tied for second after round one, tied for the lead after round two, and like DJ, 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 three 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 Jimmy 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.
Since Appleby won from off the pace in 2005, 12 of the last 13 winners have been inside the top five places and within two of the lead after round one and the odd man out, Ogilvy in 2010, was only three off the lead. Kapalua is a very hard place to make up ground.
Defending champ, Dustin Johnson, heads the market and if he returns to the fray well-prepared and in good spirits, he's the man to beat but there's every chance he doesn't and he's not for me.
A seventh-place finish at the 18-man Hero World Challenge a month ago is his only appearance since he finished 30th at the HSBC Champions in China in October, at a course that suits him. His putting stats haven't been great since August and he hasn't looked himself since he lost his way over the weekend at the U.S Open back in June. His course form figures read a very respectable 11-16-9-1-6-10-6-1.
On the back of his impressive victory at the Hero World Challenge last time out, there's been plenty of money for last year's runner-up, Jon Rahm. That was an impressive effort on debut but there are more prolific players available to back at bigger prices and I'm happy to swerve the Spaniard too.
The 2017 winner, Justin Thomas, and the world number one, Brooks Koepka, make more appeal than the front two but they both have negatives. Thomas has sandwiched his win with two finishes outside the top-20 and Koepka finished dead last 12 months ago, having finished a promising third on debut two years earlier.
Back on the grind! Mirror work to check fundamentals, left to right with a gate to work on start lines, then the same on right to left putt. With a few random putts here and there thrown... https://t.co/Mqm1dtXe4J? Justin Thomas (@JustinThomas34) December 26, 2018
It doesn't look like Thomas has been playing much golf if the above tweet, posted on Boxing Day, is anything to go by and I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if Koepka arrives a bit under-cooked after such a stellar 2018.
With such strong in-running trends, and with no way of knowing what sort of form everyone's in after the break, I'm keeping the majority of my powder dry for in-play trading but I have played two before the off - Bryson DeChambeau and Webb Simpson.
DeChambeau only finished 26th on debut 12 months ago but he wasn't in the best of form at the time and he missed his next two cuts. Thomas won the event having only finished 21st on debut the year before so that poor effort doesn't unduly worry me and the positives far outweigh that single negative.
DeChambeau ranks sixth for Par 4 Scoring on the PGA Tour over the last six months, he has excellent recent Scrambling stats, more than decent putting figures, and he's won three of the last six tournaments he's played in. He's now won five times on the PGA Tour and his winning scores in relation to par have ranged between -15 and -21. He's suited to a birdie-fest/putting contest and the world number five looked a bit big to me at 16.015/1.
Webb Simpson is a very straightforward selection at 30.029/1. He's a Bermuda greens specialist and a terrific scrambler with brilliant recent putting stats and course form figures reading 3-11-3. His recent form figures read 6-4-15-3 and he won't mind the blustery conditions over the first few days.
Bryson DeChambeau @ 16.015/1
Webb Simpson @ 30.029/1
I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter