The PGA Tour returns this week with its traditional annual opener - the Sentry Tournament of Champions - and Steve Rawlings is back with his comprehensive preview...
"DJ has no qualms about winning back-to-back events, he won three in-a-row in early 2017 and he’s won three of his last 11 starts. Odds in excess of 6/1 are more than fair."
More than a month after Viktor Hovland lifted the Mayakoba Golf Classic trophy in Mexico, the PGA Tour finally returns on Thursday with the traditional first event of the year - the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
The tournament was first staged in 1953. Between 1986 and 2013 it was the 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 around a quarter of the way through the season.
The Sentry Tournament of Champions is a limited field event restricted to those players who won on the PGA Tour in the previous calendar year but after the break in play last year, due to the pandemic, all qualifiers for last year's TOUR Championship have also been deemed eligible.
Including the TOUR Championship qualifiers, 45 golfers were eligible to play but we have a field of 42, with Rory McIlroy, Tyrrell Hatton, and Jim Herman not teeing it up.
It may be a small field but what it lacks in size it makes up in quality with eight of the world's top-10 in the line-up.
Plantation Course at Kapalua, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii.
Par 73, 7596 yards
Stroke index in 2020- 71.82
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 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.
Historically, unless the wind got up, the scoring had always been super-low. 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 but prior to last year's renewal, the designers returned to undertake what was described as an extensive refinement (detailed here) and with the help of some strong winds, it appeared to do the trick, as Justin Thomas won the title for a second time, with a -14 total.
This will be the 23rd staging in-a-row at Kapalua.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning at 23:00 UK time on Thursday
Last Five Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices
2020 - Justin Thomas -14 7.06/1
2019 - Xander Schauffele -23 30.029/1
2018 - Dustin Johnson -24 9.417/2
2017 - Justin Thomas -22 23.022/1
2016 - Jordan Spieth -30 6.25/1
What Will it Take to Win the Sentry TOC?
Only one of the first six home ranked inside the top-10 for Driving Distance last year and 17th was the best any of them ranked for Driving Accuracy so what you do off the tee here isn't crucial.
As he'd done when he won the title for the first time in 2012, Dustin Johnson ranked second for Driving Distance when he took the title again three years ago. Justin Thomas, meanwhile, ranked third for DD when he won the title for the first time in 2017. So I'd narrowly favour length over accuracy, although bombing it off the tee isn't essential.
Greens In Regulation hasn't been an especially important stat here and three of the last seven winners have ranked 11th or worst but it appears to be more important than it once was. Thomas ranked third last year and Xander Schauffele, who was beaten in extra-time when attempting to defend the title, ranked first.
A year earlier, Schauffele ranked fifth for GIR when winning, Thomas, in third, ranked fourth, and Gary Woodland, who finished second, and McIlroy (tied fourth), ranked joint-first for GIR. Brian Harman, who finished third in 2018, ranked number one for GIR and the first and second here four years ago, Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama, ranked second and third for Greens In Regulation.
Only two of the last eight winners have ranked first for Par 5 Scoring but half of them have ranked first for Par 4 Scoring.
Thomas was able to win last year despite ranking only 32nd for Scrambling and Schauffele only ranked eighth in 2019 but it's quite an important stat. Although lots of fairways were found here last year (80.93%), the field only averaged 12.6 greens hit so an ability to get up-and-down regularly is a big plus.
The beaten playoff protagonists 12 months ago, Schauffele and Patrick Reed, ranked first and third for Scrambling, and the first three home three years ago ranked sixth, third and first for Scrambling. Rickie Fowler, who finished tied for fourth, ranked second.
Thomas only ranked 12th four years ago when winning for the first time but the first two home in 2016 ranked third and first for Scrambling and nine of the 10 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...
Like the 2019 winner, Schauffele, Thomas had a Putting Average ranking of second last year (beaten playoff protagonist, Reed, ranked first). The three winners between 2016 and 2018 all topped the PA stats and 13 of the last 15 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 that Thursday will be breezy but it shouldn't be too bad after that, although it can change rapidly. The latest forecast differs quite a bit from the projections I saw a few days ago.
Is There an Angle In?
Next week's event, the Sony Open, offers up the best angle in. Thomas doubled up at the Sony four years ago and he joined an illustrious list of players who have recently won both this event and the Hawaiian-staged Sony Open.
In addition to Thomas, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson have also won the two tournaments in recent times and there are numerous examples of players playing well at both venues. In 2016, 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.
Last year's playoff was contested by three former winners and it really is a great place for course specialists.
Defending champions often fare well and multiple event winners are relatively common. Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Steve Stricker really should have won this at least twice (Stricker arguably three times) and Thomas, 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 10 winners have all been American but that's quite a strange run given that prior to 2011 an overseas player won for nine years in-a-row.
Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four
2020 - Justin Thomas alone in second - trailing by one 3.02/1
2019 - Xander Schauffele T4 - trailing by five 20.019/1
2018 - Dustin Johnson led by two strokes 1.625/8
2017 - Justin Thomas led by two strokes 2.265/4
2016 - Jordan Spieth led by five strokes 1.11/10
After a bizarre edition in 2019, when Schauffele went against all the usual in-running trends to win from off the pace, it was business as usual last year.
Schauffele had been six off the lead in a tie for 19th after round one and, although he was only sixth at halfway and fifth with a round to go, he trailed by five after both rounds two and three. He was matched in-running at a high of 390.0389/1 before shooting a course record equalling 62 in round four to win by a stroke, despite bogeying the opening hole.
This is often an extraordinarily hard venue at which to play catch up and the path to victory was far more typical last year. Thomas sat second and one off the lead after rounds one and three and, even after a poor second round 73, he was still inside the top-five and only three off the lead.
In 2018, DJ sat fourth and just two off the lead after round one, he'd 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. Patrick Reed led after round one five 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 but the 2019 edition wasn't a complete one-off.
Like Schauffele, 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. Excluding Schauffele's victory two years ago, since Appleby won from off the pace in 2005, 13 of the 14 winners had been inside the top five places and within two of the lead after round one and the odd man out, Geoff Ogilvy in 2010, was only three off the lead.
Kapalua is a very hard place to make up ground.
World number one, Dustin Johnson, heads the market and so he should. Having already won the event twice, the brand-new US Masters champ has every chance of winning it again.
When he won his first major championship, the US Open in 2016, he won next time out, at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. On the two occasions he's won here previously, in 2013 and 2018, he did so after a lengthy break so the fact that we haven't seen him since his success at Augusta in November is nothing to concern us.
DJ has no qualms about winning back-to-back events, he won three in-a-row in early 2017 and he's won three of his last 11 starts. Odds in excess of 6/1 are more than fair.
With course form figures reading 21-1-22-3-1, defending champion, Justin Thomas, is a very obvious danger to DJ, but I'm just fractionally concerned about Thomas's Scrambling figures here. In his five visits to date, he's only ranked 30th, 12th, 31st, 16th and 32nd. I know he's won here twice already but that's despite a poor game around the greens and that's a slight concern.
Jon Rahm's course form is regressive - reading 2-8-10 - and I don't like the fact that he's changed manufacturers. At a single-figure price, others are preferred.
Bryson DeChambeau has been here twice previously, finishing 26th and seventh so he improved considerably on his second look when he dramatically progressed his Scrambling (34th to 3rd) and Putting Average stats (22nd to 6th).
Curiously, he's only averaged around 275 yards off the tee - ranking 17th and 16th for DD - so it will be interesting to see whether he's more aggressive this time around. Like Thomas, my concern is his ability to get up-and-down with regularity as his scrambling can be a bit in-and-out.
Xander Schauffele clearly loves it here and he'd have defended the title if he'd have putted better 12 months ago but he hasn't won anywhere since he won here two years ago and he's also just getting over catching the virus.
It's highly likely that we'll see the finish again contested by a handful of course specialists and/or course winners so although I've found fault with those listed immediately below DJ, I really am splitting hairs. I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if any of them won and I certainly wouldn't want to put anyone off any of them.
I was happy to back Dustin Johnson at 8.07/1 and I'm in full agreement with Dave Tindall about the chances of Patrick Reed, who is my idea of the best bet this week at the prices available.
Reed has been playing very nicely for some time now and with course form figures reading 16-1-2-6-25-2, he clearly loves the Plantation Course. I thought 19.018/1 was more than fair about and I've also thrown a few pounds at the US PGA Champion, Collin Morikawa.
Morikawa sat tied for fourth with a round to go on debut last year before eventually finishing seventh and he looks fractionally over-priced this week at 36.035/1. The world number seven lost his form after bagging his first major in August but he might just come out reinvigorated and raring to go after the festive break.
Dustin Johnson @ 8.07/1
Patrick Reed @ 19.018/1
Collin Morikawa @ 36.035/1
I've also picked out a couple of big outsiders for the Find Me a 100 Winner column and I'll be back later with those.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter