Golf is BACK!
It was only a few weeks off for the TOUR this year, but it felt much longer and they come back with a bang at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. The event will be unique this time around, what else is new, as it will include a larger field than usual. Due to the shortened 2020 season, they decided to extend the invite to everyone that made last year’s Tour Championship in addition to all of the tournament winners from the year. This year will feature 42 players at the no-cut event.
The bonus for us will be added star power as Rory McIlroy is the only player out of the current top-11 in the Official World Golf Rankings that won’t be playing in Maui this week. Dustin Johnson will make his first appearance since capturing the Green Jacket in November, and has excellent course history in this event. Justin Thomas will come in as the defending champion and off a win himself, as he and his dad won the PNC Championship to close the tournament slate last year.
Tony Finau and Hideki Matsuyama highlight some of the non-winners that made it into the field as a result of the caveat for this year’s event. They will each make a return to the Tournament of Champions for the first time in multiple years as they look to end their win droughts this season.
The tournament again returns to the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort. The course was originally designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 1991, and the pair renovated it in 2019 where they added bunkers and tee boxes, as well as the rebuilding of the greens.
This will be the second year on the course following that renovation. Last year, Thomas won the event at 14 under-par, which was nine strokes fewer than Xander Schauffele’s 23-under in 2019, and 10 fewer than the score for Johnson when he won in 2018. It will be interesting to see if the changes have affected scoring that much or if last year was just an anomaly.
Kapalua Resort’s Plantation Course is a coastal track, with the added dimension of being in mountainous terrain. Players will deal with large undulations throughout the course as they venture up and down the mountainside throughout their round.
The 7,596-yard, par-73 plays a bit shorter than that yardage due to the elevation changes and will result in multiple drives approaching, and sometimes exceeding, 400 yards. There are 45 acres of fairway throughout the course which adds to the driving length and benefit to longer hitters. Players that do find the rough will deal with 2.5 inch Bermuda grass, and will have to avoid 93 bunkers on their way to the Bermuda grass greens.
However, the real protection of the course comes in the form of the coastal winds, which can wreak havoc and are the reason for the slow rolling greens at just 10-10.5 on the stimpmeter. It looks as though there could be some of those high winds in the forecast this week, and that will certainly be worth watching as Thursday approaches.
It’s a unique layout on the scorecard for the Sentry Tournament of Champions plays to a par-73, but it does so with just three par 3s, four par 5s, and 11 par 4s. As Matt Vincenzi noted in his key stats article for the week, there are a number of short par 4s within those eleven holes, making the wedge game a key area for success. The large undulating greens also put a premium on precise approach play across all holes.
Players will start their round with one of the two toughest holes on the course as the par 4 first hole, will test them right out of the gates. It has historically played over par, and is yielding birdies just 7% of the time as the lengthy par 4 requires precision off the tee and on approach. Even par will be a solid score across four rounds on this opening hole.
The hole that challenges the first for most difficult on the course each year at the Tournament of Champions is down the stretch on the par-4 17th. As players go down the mountain toward the finish, this hole looks generous off the tee to the large fairway. But then they are met by a full carry approach often with some of the most difficult winds on the course.
The fireworks for the par 4s come on the back nine at the 12th and 14th holes, where most of the field will choose to be aggressive and look to drive both greens, but that decision will not come without peril for wayward drives. Knee-high grass can swallow shots off the tee and turn two of the better birdie opportunities into large numbers in a hurry.
While the par 3s on the Plantation Course don’t feature much in the way of length for TOUR pros, with two of the three right at 200 yards. They certainly don’t lack bite, though.
The second hole plays as one of the three toughest on the course and offers bogeys at nearly a 20% clip. The eighth is right behind it in difficulty as the 203-yard hole sees bogey or worse nearly 19% of the time. It is the hole on the course most prone to big numbers with double bogeys and worse frequently come into play.
As is the case each week, and especially for DFS, taking advantage of the par 5s will be a major target point in Kapalua. Three of the four are 550 yards or shorter and as I noted, some play downhill including the 677-yard 18th, making eagle in play for nearly every player in the field. The finishing hole was the site of the multiple hole playoff between Thomas, Patrick Reed and Schauffele as it plays down the mountain with a wonderful finishing view of the Pacific Ocean.
Players will need enough length to take advantage of the slopes down the final fairway in order to have a shot at the green. There will be many shots that run up to the putting surface and again use the slopes to get closer to the hole, creating great drama down the stretch on Sunday afternoon.
In review of the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort, it appears the path to success is fairly evident. Players will need to survive the opening couple of holes, looking to play those at even par throughout the week and really hold to that throughout the par 3s. Additionally, they must take advantage of the par 5s, looking for birdie or better each time they tee it up on those each round.
It’s a tough week to decide who to highlight in the course history section since many players have good looking results at this event. Part of that is the smaller fields, but for someone like Thomas, this is just a course that suits his game. JT has two wins and a third in his last four trips to the Tournament of Champions, and he’ll look to defend his title this week in Hawaii.
I was really splitting hairs by highlighting JT first, as Johnson could’ve certainly been listed first since he hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 in any of his last five trips to Maui. He also has a win back in 2018, and it was not dissimilar to his performance at the Masters in the fall as he lapped that Hawaii field by six strokes.
The two players that fell short in the playoff last year, Reed and Schauffele, were in a familiar position down the stretch at the Plantation Course. It was a second runner-up finish for Reed in his past four appearances at the event, and for Xander, he was looking to go back-to-back following his 2019 win.
One player that I mentioned previously that may not jump out to others as a course fit in Maui is Matsuyama. He hasn’t won on TOUR in two years, so he hasn’t had the chance to play this event since 2018, but he finished in a tie for fourth after finishing second in 2017. Matsuyama may be a sneaky good course fit as we see ownership play out in DFS this week.
I almost made it through an entire golf article without mentioning Bryson DeChambeau, but he deserves a quick mention. As you can see from the names listed above, and the course preview section, length is an advantage this week. Bryson has a 26th- and seventh-place finish at this event in his two trips in 2018 and 2019 respectively, but remember that was pre-protein shake Bryson. DeChambeau has some familiarity with this place and one decent result, which now can be added to his silly length firing at some of the widest fairways on TOUR.
Pictured: Justin Thomas
Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images