TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS: While you and I are returning to work, making and breaking New Year’s resolutions, or perhaps digging out of a snowstorm, a select group of PGA Tour players have made their way to the Hawaiian island of Maui for the first officially sanctioned event of 2022, the Sentry Tournament of Champions. We too can live the dream by entering one of the Tour’s many Monday qualifiers, getting through, and winning a tournament. That’s the only way in to this shindig, but as dreams go, it’s readily accessible. Start practicing.
(side note: if you’re on Twitter and you’re not following Monday Q Info, you should be. Best follow out there in the golf world)
The 39 players who did manage to win a PGA Tour event last season will enjoy not only the sights and sounds of Maui, but also a course that is among the friendliest on the schedule, yielding birdies at the rate of a country club scramble. It’s taken 23-under or better to win this tournament in 5 of the past 6 years and the 30-under mark has been touched twice– that’s what happens when you put the world’s best players on a course designed for 20-handicap resort guests. That’s not to disparage the Plantation Course at Kapalua– the views are stunning, the elevation change is unique, and when the wind howls it can be a proper test, as it was two years ago, when 14-under was the winning score. But with fairways that could fit two jumbo jets and enormous greens that are perfectly maintained, you simply can’t hide the pins well enough to stave off the birdies. But that seems to be just fine for all involved, as the Plantation Course has hosted this event for the past 23 years and Rory McIlroy was the only eligible player to decline his invitation this year.
Handicapping this tournament is always a bit tricky because the players are all coming back after some time off, but historically the top of the market has fared well here, with single-digit favorites getting the job done three times since 2016, and experience matters, as 7 of the last 10 champions had teed it up at Kapalua at least twice prior to winning. (h/t Caddie Network) Defending champion Harris English broke the mold, however, and the victory ended up catapulting him to a career season. We’ve tried to find this year’s English among the mid-market types, and have taken a shot on a couple of shorter-odds guys as well:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Justin Thomas (9.6)- It’s never any fun to pick the favorite… unless, of course, the favorite ends up winning. And with a record in this event that includes a pair of victories (’17, ’20) and a pair of 3rd-place finishes (’19, ’21), Thomas has shown that either wins or sniffs winning nearly every time he tees it up at Kapalua. The laid back Hawaiian vibe seems to suit the young Thomas, as he has also enjoyed success at the Sony, and with his length and tee-to-green ability he absolutely eats the 7,600-yard, par-73 Plantation Course for breakfast. The numbers are silly: 93-under par in six career appearances, eight rounds of 6-under or better, four top-3 finishes in his past 5 starts… there are no sure things in golf, as we know, but Justin Thomas at Kapalua is about as close as it gets. The price is short, but not short enough to scare me off.
Xander Schauffele (15.0)- Like most players in the field the week, Schauffele hasn’t played much over the past couple of months, with his lone start since October coming in last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he broke par in all four rounds en route to a T12. It was a relaxing way to cap a frustrating season for Schauffele in which he posted seven top-5 finishes, including three runner-ups, but was unable to find the winner’s circle. He’ll look to recharge at one of his favorite stops on the schedule, a place where he has closed the deal before– Schauffele tore Kapalua to pieces back in 2019, firing an 11-under 62 on Sunday to finish 23-under for the week and earn his fourth PGA Tour victory. In the years since he’s finished runner-up (’20) and T5 (’21), so it’s safe to say he’s figured out the best way around the Plantation Course and is very comfortable putting his plan to action. He should be viewed as one of the clear favorites this week and is worth a bet at a price like 15.0.
Marc Leishman (54.0)- Among the longer-odds types this week I’m looking for a player with a bit of experience who won’t be content simply taking in the landscape or the late-night luaus, and who has displayed a bit of form at Kapalua in the past. Marc Leishman is someone who fits the bill– this will be his fifth career appearance at this tournament, so he certainly knows what to expect, and he’s had flashes of brilliance, finishing 4th in 2019 and 7th in 2018. Though he hasn’t teed it up since November, when he finished T19 at the Houston Open, he’s only three starts removed from back-to-back top-5 finishes (T4 Fortinet, T3 Shriners), so the feeling of great golf is still fresh. Plus, Leishman has always been the type of player who brings his best stuff against the best competition, so there’s no pairing this week that could intimidate him. He’s a live one at better than 50/1.