Sentry Tournament Of Champions Tips

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Steve Bamford's Tips for the 2018 Sentry Tournament Of Champions. Follow Steve on twitter: @bamfordgolf

Happy New Year to you all and welcome to 2018 on the PGA Tour.

After enduring no PGA Tour golf in December, we're back ready and raring to go - so what should we expect in 2018? In terms of Major Championships we visit Shinnecock Hills (New York), Carnoustie and Bellerive (Missouri) across the U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship respectively. New host courses on the Tour include Corales Golf Club in the Dominican Republic for a new alternate tournament on the schedule in March, a return to Quail Hollow for the Wells Fargo, plus visits to Trinity Forest Golf Club (AT&T Byron Nelson) and Keene Trace Golf Club (Barbasol Championship). Tiger Woods' National event still has no host course at present.

2018 Punters League sponsored by Paddy Power Paddy Power Free Bet

Before we talk Kapalua, it's time to highlight our GBS Punters League. Now into its 8th season and with record numbers of entrants, the Punters League starts in Hawaii this week and runs through to the week of the DP World Tour Championship in mid-November. We're excited to announce that Paddy Power are once again sponsoring the competition with a £/€250 free bet first prize for the overall League Champion plus £/€25 free bets for each of the weekly winners. Entry is exclusively via our lively Facebook Group. Good luck and note that the deadline for this week is the first tee time on Thursday.

Best Each-Way Golf Bookmakers

If you're a regular golf punter or a relative newbie to the sport, our 2017 each-way place research covering all 46 PGA Tour strokeplay tournaments is well worth a read here. The definitive guide to which online bookmakers offer the very best golf each-way terms over the long term.

2018's PGA Tour action kicks off as ever on the island of Maui, Hawaii. The traditional 'Tournament of Champions' winners-only event is always an interesting affair on a spectacular and unique coastal course. Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson are no-shows leaving a high quality field of 34 to slug it out for the well-respected title. With the top 5 players in the world in attendance, namely Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, John Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama, we aren't short of quality this week in an event where a chunky 50 OWGR points are up for grabs.

Course Guide: From a course design perspective, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw these days are most famous for their renovation masterpiece at Pinehurst Number 2 which of course hosted the 2014 U.S. Open. However their Plantation Course design at Kapalua, which was opened in 1991, is no ordinary golf course as it sits perched above the Pacific Ocean. A Par 73 format which is unique on the PGA Tour, the course is synonymous with long drives, aggressive play and impressively low scoring. Scratch a little deeper though and it becomes apparent that the course can be mastered just as well by shorter, accurate types who can putt the lights out over 4 days of competition.

The Plantation Course at Kapalua, Lahaina, Hawaii: Designer: Coore & Crenshaw, 1991; Course Type: Coastal, Resort; Par: 73; Length: 7,452 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 0; Fairways Bermudagrass; Rough: Bermudagrass, 2"; Greens: 7,120 sq.ft TifEagle Bermudagrass; Stimpmeter: 10ft. Course Scoring Average 2012: 70.44 (-2.66), Difficulty Rank 48 of 49 courses. 2013: 72.11 (-0.89), Difficulty Rank 32 of 43 courses. 2014: 70.58 (-2.42), Rank 47 of 48 courses. Course Scoring Average 2015: 69.93 (-3.07), Difficulty Rank 52 of 52 courses. 2016: 69.81 (-3.19), Difficulty Rank 50 of 50 courses. 2017: 70.38 (-2.64), Difficulty Rank 50 of 50 courses.

Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for The Plantation Course and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen on Tour:

Course Designer Links: For research purposes other Coore/Crenshaw designs include:

Course Overview: The scoring at Kapalua is always shaped by the strength of the local winds. For 2018 expect stronger Trade (easterly) breezes which will make the course play shorter, but slightly tougher than 12 months ago. Plantation seems long at circa 7,450 yards but the course plays as a Par 73 via a unique 36/37 Par split and is famous for having 11 par-4s and only 3 par-3s. In total the layout features 6 sub-400 yard par-4s. This makes it possible to score heavily with 12 of the 18 holes last term playing easier than their Par. The course has the largest amount of elevation changes on the whole PGA Tour creating blind shots and plenty of uneven lies. Large greens feature extremely grainy TifEagle Bermudagrass with plenty of contours. This combination puts a premium on accurate approach play from the fairway, allied to excellent lag putting to minimise the inevitable long distance 3-putts.

The Plantation Course at Kapalua is easy to misread. At over 7,400 yards and with some of the widest fairways on the PGA Tour, it would be easy to look exclusively for bombers to dominate here. After all, most people remember the closing, downhill par-5 18th hole where brute power gives those that are blessed with length from the tee a real eagle opportunity. However despite wins for both Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson since 2013, brute force and high standard ball-striking alone aren't enough to unlock the secrets of a format that demands at the very minimum a birdie or better on 1 in 3 holes to be able to contend for victory.

Instead the key to this test tends to be top-class wind play allied to conquering the uniquely contoured and huge 7,000+ sq.ft average green complexes that feature TifEagle Bermudagrass. Eagles and birdies are on offer to those who can putt well on greens where getting close to the hole is a particularly difficult task - indeed Kapalua has ranked inside the top-10 most difficult courses in terms of Proximity to Hole every year since 2011. Tie the difficulty in getting close to the pin in with the fact that putts are tremendously difficult to read, grain is a huge feature and that there are huge variances in putting speed dependant on whether a putt is uphill, flat or downhill. Therefore it becomes clear that course experience is a real advantage. Top quality putters who can compile low scores through astute birdie making in tandem with top-notch scrambling to minimise bogeys should undoubtedly be favoured.

Winners: 2017: Justin Thomas (-22); 2016: Jordan Spieth (-30); 2015: Patrick Reed (-21); 2014: Zach Johnson (-19); 2013: Dustin Johnson (-15, 54 holes); 2012: Steve Stricker (-23); 2011: Jonathan Byrd (-24); 2010: Geoff Ogilvy (-22).

Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes. NEW! Combined Current and Course Form is now available here.

Published Predictor Model: Our published predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of my published predictor are Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Thomas.

Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the British Masters / web.com Tour Championship and includes PGA Tour, European Tour and web.com Playoff events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:

Winners & Prices: 2017: Justin Thomas 22/1; 2016: Spieth 5/1; 2015: Reed 22/1; 2014: Zach Johnson 14/1; 2013: Dustin Johnson 14/1; 2012: Stricker 17/2; 2011: Byrd 50/1; 2010: Ogilvy 9/1;. Average: 18/1. For a full summary of winner's odds on the PGA Tour since 2010 click here.

Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Maui is here. A wet December (159mm) will leave the course in a relatively receptive condition. 13mm since Christmas Day is nothing too significant and with no rain forecast throughout tournament week the course will continually dry, especially with wind very much in-play this week. Gusting 20mph+ winds will be a feature throughout the 4 days of play, with Thursday looking to be the most challenging - gusting 25mph. They will be of the Trade variety, making the course play shorter.

Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the last 8 winners here since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:

Tournament Skill Averages:

So let's take a view from players as to how the Plantation course sets up and what skills the course favours:

Justin Thomas: "Today was the hardest for sure. It was a little windier. The greens are getting a little faster. They are still not, I'm sure, up to the pace that they would like with all the rain, but they are starting to get a little firmer, a little faster. The wind just makes it a lot harder to putt. And yesterday was pretty calm. It was about as easy as you could get this golf course. Then Thursday, it was, you know, a normal Kapalua wind, ten to 15. They have been similar but a little different, if that makes sense. Just kind of different versions of a little windy. It's a course where you can just get so hot. You can realistically, 11 can be a tough hole, and 17 is a tough hole. But other than that, you've got a wedge in your hand or you're looking at a lot of birdie holes and potentially eagle holes. I was just trying to tell myself that even though I made a bad bogey on 7, I hit a good putt on 8, just missed, and then just missed a wood over a 3-footer on 9 to birdie. Could have been 5-under on the front, but still being 2-under, I could still shoot 6-, 7-under on the back and post a low one. That was kind of my mind frame just going through the back nine."

Jordan Spieth: "Whether it's a short putt, or long, you just really got to hit it. I played a couple putts today - trickiest reads for me were ones where the entire mountain and grain is going one way, but you're on the back side - like putts like I had on 17. I had one where that back side of that green's pitched back the other way. You want to play gravity, but you know there's an effect from the hill, from the slope and you know there's an effect from the gradual slope down the mountain and the grain. And each time I try to almost out smart it and play it towards the water and it actually turned back into the hill. So I'll keep a note of that. But for the most part, if you're hitting anything from really five feet out into the grain uphill, it is just tough to hit hard enough. Especially in the last group because they get a little spiked up and they're even slower."

Patrick Reed: "The golf course fits my eye really well. A lot of the holes, seems like I can work it right-to-left and I've worked really hard this off-season on not only working the ball right-to-left but also working it left-to-right, so I can have both shots."

Zach Johnson: "Well, I guess there was an intimidation factor there just because of the length of it. You know, score card length, and you get a few winds out here where the course does play long. You know, you get the trades, it doesn't feel like it plays that long. But I was intimidated, not necessarily just because of the yardage, though. Because of the greens. They're just so hard to putt. I mean they're big; they're undulating. A flat putt is pretty slow. The ones down grain are super fast. The ones in the grain are obviously super slow. So the greens are still intimidating. What I've grown to know is you're going to hit good putts and they're just not going to go in, because there's so much break. So once I embraced that fact, I think things have kind of settled down a little bit mentally. It's just hard. Everybody is going to hit it you're going to hit a lot of fairways, you're going to hit a lot of greens and you're going to miss a lot of putts."

Geoff Ogilvy: "Does it help to hit it long around here? It helps, I think. I don't think I'm long anymore. I'm long enough. It gives longer hitters room to have at it, you know. There's a lot of holes here where you just hit it as hard as you can and have a little bit of concern for where it goes but a lot less than normal. So I guess it's an advantage to hit it long because you can, it's always an advantage to hit it long. There's a lot of holes here where it's probably a super advantage. Like 18 is unreachable for the non-long guys but the long guys, it's exponential. Every ten yards you hit it, you get an extra 20 yards. But a good wind player and a good putter is going to do the best out here I think."

Steve Stricker: "Yeah, you have to learn here. It takes a while to learn here. It's a little bit different than what we are typically used to. There's big undulating greens, a lot of slope in the fairways. But I think the biggest challenge is the greens and the wind once you get on the greens. The wind can blow and make putting very difficult, and even the roll out in the greens that we typically have, which we are not seeing as much here. So it's a challenge to hit some of these shots, and you expect that ball to roll out or release a lot, and it's not now. So that's a little different, too, and something to get used to. But it's a course where a lot of local knowledge helps you out a lot and the more times you play here, the better off you are."

Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 8 Tournament of Champions winners:

Incoming form of winners since 2013:

First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their group and winning score since 2010. Full First Round Leader stats are here.

For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:

Kapalua is a course where Driving Accuracy and Greens in Regulation take something of a back seat. Instead the key to success here is accurate approach play and conversion of scoring chances with the putter. Course conditions for 2018 sees pretty strong Trade wind (easterly to north-easterly) breezes which will make the course play shorter and remain very scoreable. Slow greens here at 10 on the Stimpmeter are the norm as green complex undulations demand receptiveness. I can see circa -20/272 or even slightly lower being the target score required.

8 of the last 9 winners here all played competitive golf in the previous December, be that in Australia or at Tiger's Hero Challenge and/or the QBE Shoot Out. Working forward from Vijay Singh in 2007, all winners here at Kapalua had shot -19 or lower to win a PGA Tour tournament previously in their career.

Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.

My selections are as follows:

Rickie Fowler 3pts Win 8/1 with unibet Get a £30 risk-free bet for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply: unibet

You get the feeling that Rickie Fowler means business right now. 2017 saw Fowler play second fiddle to his Jupiter, Florida comrades Dustin Johnson (World Number 1), Brooks Koepka (World Number 8) and Justin Thomas (World Number 3) who between them amassed 11 victories last year including the U.S. Open, PGA Championship and 2 World Golf Championships. You can throw in a FedEx Cup title for good measure as well. With the likes of fellow Jupiter 'gang' members Daniel Berger and Patrick Cantlay also making huge waves, Fowler, despite a productive 2017, was in danger of becoming the 'nearly man'. So it was exciting to see Rickie post-Tour Championship play some of his very best stuff, inspired by plenty of practice rounds with one Tiger Woods. A pairing with Justin Thomas at the Presidents Cup generated 2.5 points from 3 matches and Rickie finished the singles strongly destroying Emiliano Grillo 6&4 to be the only American along with Dustin Johnson to be unbeaten at Liberty National. From there an unexpected late November trip to El Camaleon for the OHL Classic saw Rickie lead from the front, beaten by a single shot by an inspired Patton Kizzire. Fowler was back 2 weeks later at Albany for the Hero World Challenge, again starting quickly to establish tournament chances, before shooting an amazing -11/61 which included 7 straight birdies out of the gate to leave an elite-level field trailing in his wake. His last 8 rounds of golf have generated 52 birdies across 144 holes with a 36% Birdie or Better percentage. That will get it done!

So it's hard not to like Rickie this week on a coastal course where wind will undoubtedly be a large factor. 2 visits have generated a 6th (2013) and 5th (2016) and it's true that Fowler has never arrived on Maui with such total confidence in his putter. Whilst Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas have question marks against them in my mind with recent performances, Fowler seems at the peak of his powers and his record after winning is also an interesting angle. 2nd at the 2013 Players Championship, 1st at the 2015 Scottish Open, 2nd at the 2015 AT&T National and 2nd at the 2016 Waste Management Phoenix Open have all come a number of weeks after a previous victory. Yes, Rickie is not as clinical as he should be, but 4 of his 7 top-level victories have been on Bermudagrass putting surfaces, with his latest 2 arriving on TifEagle. He admitted after his victory at the World Challenge that he didn't win as much as he wanted to in 2017 and that he's been working on a few small things that will put him in the winners circle more often in 2018. Undoubtedly he starts with a huge chance this week. RESULT: T4

Jon Rahm 3pts EW 12/1 with unibet Get a £30 risk-free bet for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply (4 places, 1/4 odds): unibet

It's true that no course debutant since Daniel Chopra in 2008 has won on their first visit to Kapalua, but in Anthony Kim (2nd 2009), Webb Simpson (3rd 2012), Jordan Spieth (2nd 2014), Hideki Matsuyama (3rd 2015) and Brooks Koepka (3rd 2016), it's easy to see that precocious young talent with real momentum adapt quickly to the task on Maui and flourish. The Plantation Course tests all facets of the game and rewards those with an excellent all-round game. Wind-play, the ability to hit the ball close both from 200+ yards and with the wedge in hand, unlock both par-4 and par-5 scoring opportunities. Top-level scrambling to avoid damaging bogeys is essential and only those with the hottest putters ultimately triumph. So I'm turning to Jon Rahm this week for a number of key reasons. Naturally on his last outing in late November, Jon won his biggest title to date when securing the DP World Tour Championship. The European Tour finale since 2012 had always been won by a player with a previous top-7 finish, but Rahm showed his true world class by winning on course debut - taking the opportunity when Justin Rose collapsed on the back 9. Rahm is so good and so talented that he bucks trends, simple as that.

His short professional career also highlights a player comfortable by the coast. A maiden PGA Tour victory at Torrey Pines, 5th at Pebble Beach, 10th at El Camaleon and his Irish Open win at Portstewart ably shows an appetite for coastal challenges. 8th for Scoring Average, 7th for Birdie Average, 14th for Bogey Avoidance, 4th for par-4 Scoring Average and 7th for par-5 Scoring Average across the PGA Tour last season, place Rahm in the highest echelons of player talent on show at Kapalua. 50th for Proximity to Hole and 13th for Scrambling also highlight that Jon is far more than just a bomber. 3rd for Putting Average on the TifEagle Bermudagrass greens of the Earth Course ticks the hot-putter box and his performances both in Dubai and at the WGC-Dell Technologies Matchplay where he was runner-up to Dustin Johnson last year show an aptitude for TifEagle green grain reading. 2 of his 3 wins have arrived with winning totals of -24/264 (Irish Open) and -19/269 (DPWTC) which are right in the ball-park of what we are looking for this week and Rahm has started seasons quickly before winning amateur titles on season debut. Indeed his maiden PGA Tour title last year came in only his 2nd outing at the Farmers Insurance Open. A second PGA Tour title as quickly as possible will be a short-term target for the 23-year old who is now up to World Number 4 and this short field event is a huge opportunity to add to the tally. RESULT: 2nd

Cameron Smith 1pt EW 50/1 with unibet Get a £30 risk-free bet for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply (4 places, 1/4 odds): unibet

Cameron Smith jumps out from the player field this week and I was very surprised to see such a big price about the World Number 62 who has gained 82 spots since early August. Kapalua has always been a happy hunting ground for Australians with Stuart Appleby and Geoff Ogilvy winning 5 titles between them here since 2004. Added to that, Jason Day fell a shot short of a playoff place here back in 2015. Asked for his reasons why Aussies tend to go well at the Tournament of Champions, Geoff Ogilvy in 2009 stated, "We are definitely fortunate that it's only three weeks ago we were playing the premiere tournament in Australia, and that's usually windy and similar-type golf to Hawaii. Here it's very obvious where the ball is going to break. They are quite easy to read but they are big, sweeping breaks which is quite similar to what I grew up on many courses around Melbourne. They are very fast downhill, which again I think is something we have just been doing in Australia in November, December, we were playing fast greens and big, sweeping breaks." So on the basis that Cameron Smith finished 4th at the Australian Open (ahead of Jordan Spieth) and won the Australian PGA Championship in early December following on from some great form on the PGA Tour Asian swing, I think he's well worth some each-way interest on his Kapalua debut.

5th at the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, 3rd at the CJ Cup in South Korea, 4th at the Australian Open at the Australian Club and a win on his last outing at Royal Pines in Brisbane have been achieved with a cumulative 51-under Par. Impressive stuff and it's worth looking at Cameron in more detail. A couple of 5th spots at TPC Kuala Lumpur ties in well with defending champion Justin Thomas who has won there in both 2015 and 2016. The CJ Cup was played on the South Korean island of Jeju in a setting and on a course that many likened to Kapalua. Smith finished a shot shy of Marc Leishman and eventual winner Justin Thomas in windy conditions which link well to the test this week. Correlating performance links with 2016 Kapalua winner Jordan Spieth are also multiple with 5th at the coastal 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay (both Spieth and Chambers Bay runner-up Dustin Johnson are previous winners here) allied to a playoff loss to the Texan at the 2016 Australian Open at Royal Sydney. Cameron is here courtesy of his victory when partnering Jonas Blixt at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans where they shot -27/261 for victory. Smith heavily outscored his Swedish partner across the 2 rounds of four ball action on Bermudagrass greens back in May and his win at Royal Pines in December featured a -18/270 winning total. More tellingly his maiden main Tour solo victory in December came on TifEagle Bermudagrass greens, which makes sense when he grew up in Brisbane and lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Smith sits 2nd in my 10-week rolling Putting Average tracker.  RESULT: T17

Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 08:45 GMT 1.1.18 but naturally subject to fluctuation. Author Steve Bamford, Find us on Google+

             

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