The Punter

Sentry Tournament of Champions: Rahm the man to beat in Maui

Golfer Jon Rahm
Jon Rahm - a worthy favourite in Hawaii

The PGA Tour returns with a stellar field for its traditional annual opener - the Sentry Tournament of Champions - and our man's back with his comprehensive preview...

  • World's best head to Hawaii to kick start 2023

  • Strong putting the key at Kapalua

  • Jon Rahm the very worthy favourite


Tournament History


More than a month after Viktor Hovland successfully defended the final individual stroke play event of 2022 - the Hero World Challenge - the PGA Tour returns on Thursday with its traditional first event of the year - the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

The tournament was first staged in 1953 and 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 was a limited field event restricted only to those that had won on the PGA Tour in the previous calendar year, but there's been a slight change to the qualifying criteria this year...

This year's edition is open to the 2022 tournament winners and any players that finished in the top 30 of the final 2022 FedEx Cup Playoffs Series, so anyone that made it to East Lake for the Tour Championship in August is eligible to tee it up it Kapalua on Thursday. As a result, we have a field of 39 that includes 17 of the world's top-20 but it doesn't include the world number one, Rory McIlroy, or the defending champ, Cam Smith, who now plies his trade on the LIV Golf Tour.

Venue


Plantation Course at Kapalua, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii.

Course Details


Par 73, 7596 yards
Stroke index in 2022- 68.22

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 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.

KAPALUA 2.jpg

Unless the wind really blows, the scoring has always been super-low here but prior to the 2020 edition, the designers returned to undertake what was described as an extensive refinement and with the help of some strong winds, it appeared to do the trick, with Justin Thomas winning the title for a second time with a -14 total.

It was business as usual in 2021 though, with the two playoff protagonists, Harris English and Joaquín Niemann, reaching 25-under-par and after rain had softened the course in the lead up 12 months ago, in a benign and almost windless week, Cam Smith smashed the tournament record, winning in a whopping 34-under-par. That's the lowest 72 hole to-par score in the history of the PGA Tour so this is a very easy track with the absence of wind.

This will be the 25th staging in-a-row at Kapalua.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage


Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning at 19:30 UK time on Thursday

Last Seven Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices


2022 - Cam Smith -34 26.025/1
2021 - Harris English -25 42.041/1 (playoff)
2020 - Justin Thomas -14 7.06/1 (playoff)
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?


Cam Smith ranked fourth for Driving Distance and 14th for Driving Accuracy when winning last year but neither driving metric has been essential over the years. I'd narrowly favour length over accuracy but only one of the first six home ranked inside the top-ten for DD in both 2020 and 2021 so bombing it off the tee isn't essential despite the track's length.

Smith ranked fifth for Greens In Regulation and the two winners before him both ranked third for GIR but the key stat appears to be Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green.

Smith ranked third last year and the top-seven in the SGT2G stats filled the first seven places on the leaderboard.

Cameron Smith wins the Sentry.jpg

The 2021 winner, Harris English, only ranked 13th for SGT2G but had he lost the playoff to Joaquín Niemann the last six winners would have ranked third, second, second, third, first and first for that stat.

Only three of the last ten winners have ranked first for Par 5 Scoring but five of them have ranked first for Par 4 Scoring. Smith ranked first for both metrics.

Scrambling used to be a really important stat and I'd still give it plenty of weight, but a strong putter has been the most important asset of late.

Renowned for his flatstick prowess, Smith ranked first for Strokes Gained Putting and second for Putting Average, so the last six winners have now ranked first or second for Putting Average and as many as 15 of the last 17 winners have ranked inside the top-four for PA.

Is There an Angle In?


Next week's event, the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club, offers up the best angle in.

Following Smith's win last year, we've now witnessed six men this century win both the Sentry Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open.

In addition to Smith, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Zach Johnson and Justin Thomas have all won both events in the last 20 odd years and following Smith's success at St Andrews last July, all six are also major champions.

In addition to the six that have won both events, there's plenty of other evidence to show the two tournaments correlate strongly. The 2021 winner, English, finished inside the top-ten in the event for three years in-a-row between 2013 and 2015 and the man he beat in extra time, Niemann, followed up his runner-up finish here with another second at Waialae a week later.

Brandt Snedeker finished third here and second at the Sony a week later in 2016 and that was a year after Jimmy 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?

The 2020 playoff was contested by three former winners, 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.

Justin Thomas wins second TOC.jpg

Course experience is very important, and debutants have a poor record. Sergio Garcia and the shock 2008 winner, Daniel Chopra, are the only first timers to win here but one look is very often all you need.

Both of the 2021 playoff protagonists were playing the Plantation Course for only the second time and that's something of a trend now given five of the last nine winners were playing in the event for just the second time.

Harris English, Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele all won on their second start here and having finished 17th and 24th on his two previous visits, Smith didn't boast an abundance of track form either.

Prior to Smith's success, the previous 11 winners had all been American but that was quite a strange run given that prior to 2011 an overseas player had won for nine years in-a-row.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four


2022 - Cam Smith tied for the lead 2.6613/8
2021 - Harris English tied for the lead 3.412/5
2020 - Justin Thomas alone in 2nd - 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

In-Play Tactics


The 2019 winner, Schauffele, won from off the pace and the 2021 runner-up, Niemann, very nearly did, but it's a venue that tends to favour the frontrunners as a rule.

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 and he was matched in-running at a high of 390.0389/1 before shooting what was then a course record equalling 62 in round four to win by a stroke, despite bogeying the opening hole!

Niemann, who was matched in-running at a high of 170.0169/1, also began the final round trailing by five. He was trading at around 100.099/1 before the final round but he raced to a two-shot lead on the back nine after playing his first 11 holes in seven-under-par. After two more birdies at the 14th and 16th holes he was matched at a low of 1.564/7 and he missed a great chance on 18 but he was eventually caught again by English, before losing at the first extra hole.

English was matched at a high of 10.09/1 during the final round two years ago but the record books will show that he and last year's winner, Smith, both led or co-led after every round and that's a fairly-typical path to victory.

Garcia in 2002, Appleby in 2005 and Schauffele four years agon, all overcame slow starts but the other 21 winners at this venue have been no more than three strokes off the lead after the first round.

Since Appleby won from off the pace in 2005, as many as 15 of the 17 winners have been inside the top five places and within two of the lead after round one. Ogilvy was only three off the lead in 2010 so Kapalua is a very hard place to make up ground.

Market Leaders

Jon Rahm arrived here 12 months ago atop of the world standings but having not played since October 2021.

He started nicely and drew alongside Smith with a course record 12-under-patr 61 on Saturday which saw the pair go into Sunday with a commanding five-stroke advantage over the rest of the field.

He was matched at a low of 1.51/2 early on in round four but Smith's putting was the difference between the two and Rahm was eventually beaten by a solitary stroke.

After a slightly disappointing 2022, Rahm is the world number five this time around, but he finished the year very strongly with form figures reading 2-1-4-1 as his putting finally improved.

Rahm has ranked eighth, first, fifth, fourth, 29th and second for Strokes Gained Putting in his last six outings and he's ranked inside the top three for Putting Average in three of those six starts so after a woeful 2022 with the flatstick, something clicked as the year drew to a close.

Having also finished second on debut in 2018, Rahm's never finished outside the top-ten here in five previous visits and he's the man to beat.

Scottie Scheffler was never in the hunt when 13th on debut in 2021 when the qualifying criteria was relaxed due to the pandemic, but the world number two looks certain to improve on that now he's a multiple PGA Tour winner and a major champion.

Scheffler wins Masters.jpg

As highlighted above, one look is often enough and he commands plenty of respect but unlike Rahm, Scheffler finished 2022 with a lukewarm putter and that could be his undoing.

Patrick Cantlay gained more than eight strokes with the putter when last sighted at the Shriners way back in October and he has course form figures reading 15-4-13-4.

Former winners Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas both command plenty of respect but Tony Finau's course form figures, that read 9-31-19, are a bit of a concern.

Possible Selections


Odds of around 7/1 will be perfectly fair about Rahm who looks set fair for a strong year if the putter behaves and I've got at least one outsider in mind for the Find Me a 100 Winner column which I'll publish tomorrow or early on Wednesday.

*UPDATE - 10:00 Jan 3
As alluded to yesterday, I'm happy to have a small wager on Jon Rahm at 8.415/2 and I'll be back later today with the Find Me a 100 Winner piece, detailing the two outsiders I've also backed.

Selection:
Jon Rahm @ 8.415/2

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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