Sentry Tournament of Champions: Sungjae set to contend if the flatstick behaves

Golfer Justin Thomas
Pre-event favourite, Justin Thomas

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

"Both of last year’s 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 seven winners were playing in the event for just the second time."

Tournament History

More than a month after Viktor Hovland won the final individual stroke play event of 2021 - the Hero World Challenge - the PGA Tour finally returns on Thursday with it's 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 is a limited field event restricted to those that won on the PGA Tour in the previous calendar year and the only absentee is Rory McIlroy so it's a very strong line-up with eight of the world's top-ten in attendance.

Venue

Plantation Course at Kapalua, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii.

Course Details

Par 73, 7596 yards
Stroke index in 2021- 70.43

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 has 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.

KAPALUA 2022 1.jpg

Prior to the 2020 edition, 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, with Justin Thomas winning the title for a second time with a -14 total but it was business as usual last year with the two playoff protagonists, Harris English and Joaquín Niemann reaching 25-under-par.

This will be the 24th staging in-a-row at Kapalua.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning at 20:15 UK time on Thursday

Last Six Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

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?

Only one of the first six home has ranked inside the top-ten for Driving Distance in each of the last two renewals and none of them ranked inside the top-12 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 four years ago and Justin Thomas ranked third for DD when he won the title for a first time in 2017 so I'd narrowly favour length over accuracy but bombing it off the tee isn't essential.

Greens In Regulation hasn't been an especially important stat here and three of the last eight winners have ranked 11th or worst but it appears to be more important than it once was. The last two winners have both ranked third for GIR.

Last year's winner, Harris English, ranked only 13th for Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green but the man he beat in extra time, Niemann, ranked second and the four victors before English ranked second, third, first and first so that looks a great place to start.

Only two of the last nine winners have ranked first for Par 5 Scoring but four of them have ranked first for Par 4 Scoring.

Scrambling used to be a really important stat and I'd still give it plenty of weight but the only player in the top-six last year to rank any better than the winner (17th) was Justin Thomas in third.

Thomas only ranked eighth though and he won here two years ago ranking only 32nd for Scrambling. A strong putter has been the most important asset of late.

English ranked first for Strokes Gained Putting and the last five winners have ranked first or second for Putting Average. As many as 14 of the last 16 winners have had a Putting Average ranking of fourth or better.

Harris English wins TOC.jpg

Kapalua is very exposed and it gets very windy so great wind exponents tend do well here.

Is There an Angle In?

Next week's event, the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club, offers up the best angle in. English finished inside the top-ten in the event three years in-a-row between 2013 and 2015 and Niemann followed up his runner-up finish here with another second at Waialae a week later.

Thomas doubled up at the Sony five years ago and he joined an illustrious list of players that 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 other examples of players playing well at both venues. In addition to Niemann's back-to-back seconds last year, Brandt Snedeker finished third here and second at the Sony a week later in 2016 and that was a 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 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.

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

Both of last year's 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 seven winners were playing in the event for just the second time.

Niemann was fifth in 2020 on his first look and English had finished 11th on his only previous visit back in 2014.
Patrick Reed won here in 2015, after finishing 16th on debut in 2014. Jordan Spieth won on his second appearance in 2016 (by eight strokes!), having finished second in 2014, while Justin Thomas won in 2017 after finishing 21st on debut and Xander Schauffele won in 2019 after finishing 22nd on debut the year before.

The last 11 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

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, Xander Schauffele, won from off the pace and last year's 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 a course record equalling 62 in round four to win by a stroke, despite bogeying the opening hole!

Xander Schauffele wins TOC.jpg

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 12 months ago but the record books will show that he led or co-led after every round and that was a fairly-typical path to victory.

Like Schauffele three years ago, Garcia in 2002 and 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. Since Appleby won from off the pace in 2005, 14 of the 16 winners have been inside the top five places and within two of the lead after round one and Geoff Ogilvy, in 2010, was only three off the lead. Kapalua is a very hard place to make up ground.

Market Leaders

The fairways at the Plantation Course are the widest on the PGA Tour but Justin Thomas still managed to miss a third of them last year, ranking 40th of 42 for Driving Accuracy. The fact that he finished third, beaten by a solitary stroke, tells you all you need to know about his tenacity and his fondest for this venue.

With course form figures reading 22-1-22-3-1-3, he's the correct favourite. Thomas was fifth in the Hero World Challenge last time out and prior to that he finished third at the World Wide Technology Championship in Mexico two months ago, where he again drove the ball poorly - hitting only 44% of the fairways.

World number one, Jon Rahm, finished runner-up here on debut in 2018 but he's been largely disappointing at the venue since, finishing eighth, tenth and seventh.

Rahm pointing.jpg

We haven't seen him since he missed the cut in the Andalucía Masters way back in October and he makes little appeal at a single-figure price.

The Open champion, Collin Morikawa, has finished seventh in each of his two previous visits but he really should have fared better last year given he trailed by just a stroke after three rounds. He was never at the races in round four and he also needs to overcome the disappointment of throwing away the Hero Challenge last time out.

Having led by five with a round to go, Morikawa was matched at just 1.081/12 in running but he lost his way badly on Sunday to eventually finish tied for fifth.

Selections

Sungjae Im ticks a few boxes this week. He finished a respectable fifth on debut last year and he currently ranks third for SGT2G so I was happy to chance him at 29.028/1 but it's all about how the Korean putts. Most weeks his flatstick doesn't behave well enough for him to win but when it does he's deadly. I'm happy to take the chance at such a juicy price.

I like both Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa but both look priced up correctly and the only other player I like towards the head of the market is Viktor Hovland.

Like Im, and five of the last seven winners, Hovland has only played here once previously and he was only 31st 12 months ago but he finished 2021 brilliantly with back-to-back wins in Mexico and Bermuda so I'm a little surprised to see him so weak in the market.

Selections


Viktor Hovland @ 16.5
Sungjae Im @ 29.028/1

I've also picked out a couple of big outsiders for the Find Me a 100 Winner column and I'll be back tomorrow with those.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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