Sentry Tournament of Champions
After it’s brief sabbatical of just over a month the PGA tour returns to our screens this week with its traditional year opening curtain raiser in Hawaii, The Sentry Tournament of champions.
As has been the case for many years now this event marks the first of a two week stint in Hawaii as next week will see the first full field event of 2020, The Sony Open in Honolulu.
The Sentry ToC was actually founded way back in 1953 and over the early years was played in Nevada and then California, before relocating to its current venue, The Plantation Course at Kapalua in Maui in 1999 and it has remained here ever since.
Current title sponsor Sentry Insurance took over these duties in 2018 and are currently in the middle of a five year deal.
As is traditionally the case the tournament is open to any player who has posted a PGA Tour victory in the previous calendar year [including both halves of the winning pairs team at the Zurich].
A field of 34 will tee it up with Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Tiger Woods, Shane Lowry, Francesco Molinari, Phil Mickelson and CT Pan the eight eligible players who have decided not to make the trip.
As noted above the event has been played since 1999 on the Plantation Course at the Kapalua resort in Maui.
The Plantation Course was co designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore and features wide undulating fairways and larger than average undulating Bermuda Greens.
The course measures just over 7450yds long.
The course is unique on the PGA Tour in that it plays to a Par 73. Add to this the fact that it is circa 7400 yards long and you would be forgiven for thinking it would favour bombers, however plenty of average to shorter length hitters have performed well here over the years such as Stricker, Spieth, Reed and Zach Johnson.
For the past two years two bigger hitters have triumphed here in the form of Xander Schauffele and Dustin Johnson with DJ, posting a 430 yard drive along the way to his win in 2018.
The main thing to note this year though is that since last years edition the course has undergone a major redesign/renovation project under the supervision of the original designers Coore & Crenshaw.
The main aim of this was to firm up the greens and the course in general thus returning it to playing how it was originally designed and in order to achieve this all fairways and rough have been re-grassed with Celebration Bermuda, while all greens now feature TiffEagle Bermuda.
In addition some holes have seen bunkers repositioned where they will have more impact on the modern day players.
Finally some holes have also been lengthened and some shortened to fit more in line with how the ‘Trade Winds’, which effect the course tend to blow.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly for a tournament who’s field is made up purely from winners from the previous year, over recent years the Sentry ToC has very much become the domain of players from the very top of the game.
This can be seen from the fact that only three of the last ten winners, J Byrd, S Stricker and last year’s winner Schauffele, were either not already, or have not subsequently become major champions. [Although surely it is only a matter of time until Xander adds a major to his trophy cabinet].
An even more striking stat that hit me when looking at the event is the number of starts players had previously made in Kapalua before first tasting victory here.
Let me expand further…. You would think that in an event, which is purely open to winners from the previous year and therefore which inevitably includes a bunch of first time winners making their debut here, we would have had some winners over the recent years who were making their first start in the event having posted their first PGA Tour win the previous year.
This though is not the case at all, in fact if we look at the list below showing the past ten winners and how many previous wins they had on the PGA Tour, we can see experience appears to be key.
2019 – X Schauffele – 3 previous PGA wins
2018 - D Johnson - 16 previous PGA wins
2017 - J Thomas – 2 previous PGA wins
2016 - J Spieth – 6 previous PGA wins
2015 - P Reed – 3 previous PGA wins
2014 - Z Johnson – 10 previous PGA wins
2013 - D Johnson – 6 previous PGA wins
2012 - S Stricker – 11 previous PGA wins
2011 - J Byrd – 4 previous PGA wins
2010 - G Ogilvy – 6 previous PGA wins
As we can see from this table only two players in the past ten years, Schauffele and J Thomas, has won here on their second visit, whilst all of the others had made multiple starts on Maui before getting the job done.
There are two possible reasons for this, first and foremost it could just be a case that course experience, getting to know the large undulating greens here, how the trade winds can effect shots etc, is key.
Secondly though I do think that it is quite possible when a player tees it up here for the first time they don’t necessarily have their full ‘game head’ on and instead get caught up in the whole ‘I’ve made it to Maui, let’s bring the family for a vacation’ vibe, thus forgetting there is an event to be won.
Either way, whatever the reason, it seems clear that historically this has not been an event for first timers.
This year of course though we do have the added complication of the ‘redesign’ in the mix and it is actually possible that players seeing the course for the first time may have a slight advantage over some of the more seasoned hands here who could get frustrated with putts reading differently to how they did before. or who may just struggle to adapt to the course playing differently to the one they have got to know in the past.
It looks like we are in for a reasonably fine start weather wise to 2020 on the PGA Tour with temperatures hovering around the low 80s and just the possibility of a couple of showers here and there through the week.
Wind as always will be a factor to a certain extent and it could play a significant part on Friday and Saturday in particular, with gusts predicted of 25-30mph on these two days. Thursday and Sunday look to be a bit calmer though with nothing over 15mph predicted.
As I always so though, this could all change!
There is always a fair bit of speculation involved for this first event of the New Year as you can never be quite sure as to how prepared the field will be. Who will come ready to win and who will have spent the festive period with their feet up reflecting on their achievements and will come in to this week with a ‘family vacation’ head on?
Having weighed everything up I have decided to go with two players this week as follows;
PATRICK REED – 14-1 - 3pts e/w - 1/5 odds 1st 5 - FINESHED 2nd [Lost in playoff]
For our first pick for the new decade I am going to start things off with the player who finished the last one on the greatest note of controversy.
Captain America, as has been very well documented, was caught up in a furore at Tiger’s event the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas at the beginning of December when he was caught on camera apparently improving his lie in the waste bunker with, when all scores were added up after 72 holes, the resulting two shot penalty basically costing him a tie with the tournament winner Henrik Stenson.
Whatever one thinks of Reed’s actions in that incident and his subsequent explanation what we shouldn’t lose sight of though is the fact that he played some fantastic golf that week with his short game on and around the greens in particularly good working order, an area which will surely serve him well here.
Regular readers will know that we had Patrick on side at The Hero and his third place finish meant we finished 2019 on a positive note with a decent e/w return.
Following on from this one of the main reasons I sided with Reed in the Bahama’s alongside his previous form in that event was his past form here at Kapalua, as well as at Doral where he won the WGC the first year after the course had undergone a major redesign, with the link between the Bahama’s venue and Kapalua being something I was particularly keen on.
To expand on this link further both courses offer room off the tee and feature large undulating TiffEagle Bermuda greens. In addition of course both venues are coastal and exposed to the vagaries of the wind.
I mentioned earlier that experience over the years here has been a key factor and while it is possible the redesign could level this out a bit this year, with the wind expected to blow previous experience in the ‘trade winds’ here should still be important.
With that in mind if we put Reed’s lacklustre effort here last year to one side, when he was no doubt suffering a Masters hangover still, his record here of three top six finishes in his previous three visits is exceptional and shows that this is an ideal type of track for him.
Patrick arrives here in a rich vein of form, which stems right back to his tenth place finish at the Open Championship last July and which has subsequently seen him post a victory at the Barclays in August and five further top ten’s worldwide, so his game appears to be right where he would want it to be.
With motivation sure to be high for both Patrick and his caddie Kessler Karain, who also found himself embroiled in controversy at the Presidents Cup, and with the form Reed brings in from the back end of last year, I can see him getting his 2020 off to a perfect start and I am very keen to have him onside this week.
KEITH MITCHELL – 125-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 5 - FINISHED 32nd
With either prohibitive prices or question marks hanging around some of those at the top of the market, such as whether Rahm will still be in honeymoon mode or whether DJ will still be rusty having only played competitively in the Presidents Cup since August, I am going to keep our powder fairly dry this week and just take one more player alongside Reed in our starting team.
With that in mind and with the possibility that the course changes could give first timers here more of a chance this year I am going to make that second pick a more speculative one and roll the dice with Keith Mitchell.
In his first two full seasons on tour the 27yr old has made it known that he is much more comfortable on Bermuda greens, which he will face this week, than on any other surface, and this was something that he certainly proved when grabbing his maiden tour title on the Florida Coast early last year at the Honda Classic, meaning he should always be in our thoughts when we find ourselves on this surface.
Since backing that victory up with a sixth place finish the following week at Bay Hill Keith has had a fairly up and down time of things, however as he showed when posting that victory down at West Palm Beach last year, if the course is one that suits he can pop up at any time, compete with, and take down, the big names of the game.
This leads me on to my next line of thinking that draws me to the Tennessee native this week and that is the fact I can’t help but think this course will suit him.
Second at the Corales in the Dominican Republic in 2018 to go with his win at the Honda this shows me that Keith clearly loves to tee it up by the Coast.
If you then throw in the fact that Keith finished third at the Crenshaw/Coore designed Trinity Forest in 2018 when it first hosted the Byron Nelson, a course which certainly holds some comparisons to this weeks venue, and there are clear pointers to this being a good set up for him, and of course his length off the tee along with his comfort level on the Bermuda should be an advantage here as well.
Mitchell is undoubtedly the type of modern day player who is going to add several more trophy’s to his cabinet over the forthcoming years and while a win for him this week is a big ask, with five e/w places on offer in a 34 runner field, and with plenty of players making their debut here this year, I am happy to roll the dice at the juicy three figure e/w odds on offer.