It's good to be back as the PGA TOUR returns from a four-week break in the action.
They say this is a Super Season with 50 events on the docket so buckle up, there won't be many off weeks from here on out. The only planned pause will come in late July for the Olympics.
This week's Tournament of Champions is an invite-only event. There is no cutline to sweat. The field size usually sits between 30 and 35 golfers but because of the pandemic they allowed anyone that made it to East Lake last season to also punch a ticket. That leaves us with 42 golfers prepped to run this week.
The event presents a unique challenge for gamers because everone in the field in coming in cold. We don't have any form to lean on. Some golfers will have been grinding over the holidays while some probably put the clubs away from a few weeks. We won't know which are which until perhaps later in the week when some reveal their schedule in post-round pressers.
Others may have gotten COVID during the break, and were forced to rest. Jim Herman was forced to WD from this event when he tested positive. There is another golfer we know for sure got the virus over the holidays but was cleared from isolation just in time to play this week, more about that later.
For now, let's jump right in and talk about the course.
The Plantation Course at Kapalua is the host venue this week. It's played that role since the 1999 edition.
The Coore and Crenshaw design is a rare par 73 that can stretch out to 7,596 yards.
That sounds long when you look at the raw yardage but it's just slightly on the short side when you factor in the course is made up of four par 5s but only three par 3s. There are also some extreme elevation changes that make some of those longer holes play much shorter than the actual yardage on the tee box.
Speaking of elevation and undulation, this is a course that yields some of the longest drives we'll see all year. The par-4 17th is where most of that magic happens. We we will some 400+ yard drives there this week.
Coore and Crenshaw did a renovation before the 2020 edition and we saw it play a bit tougher than usual (still easy). Part of that was the wind they saw last year but there were also some other factors that resulted in tougher conditions. It was extreme soft on the fairways last year so many drives were just plugging and you didn't get any rollout. However, the greens were freshly laid Celebration Bermuda and as we've seen in the past after turf changes, greens are often springy and tough to hold for the first year or two when they are maturing.
Long story short, last year was about as tough as we'll see this course play and the field still averaged 71.58 (-1.42 RTP).
Why is the course so easy for the pros? First, it features extremely wide fairways. Distance is not a requirement here but you can pound driver wherever you want because the fairways are so wide and there aren't any water hazards to worry about.
When you do miss fairways, you aren't heavily penalized. The field still averages 70% GIR after missing fairways which which is just 14% lower than the GIR Rate when finding the fairway. That differential is usually closer to 25% on most TOUR courses.
On approach, the lack of length results in a lot of short irons and wedges for the pros.
Overall, this leads to a birdie-or-better rate of roughly 25 percent for the field. That puts it behind only a few courses in terms of easy scoring conditions (PGA West courses and Keene Trace). Birdies and eagles should be flying off the shelf this week.
Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Rickie Fowler: "I feel like this golf course also allows you to use your imagination. Obviously with the amount of up and down and side slopes, and in the wind you've got to have some imagination on shot shape and hit your windows... so judging that properly is always fun for me."
Joaquin Niemann: "The greens are tough, so you've got to be really good around the greens."
Geoff Ogilvy: "I do well with a wedge and it’s a real wedge-based course. The greens putt like Melbourne greens with big sweeping putts, 30-foot putts that break 12 feet."
Dustin Johnson: "The wind is always blowing here and you really got to use the wind to help your ball get close to the hole or stop the ball or however you want to do it... I mean it’s all about controlling the ball and hitting it solid. When the wind’s blowing this hard, you hit solid shots you can control it."
Brooks Koepka: "You’re not going to find a slopier golf course than this. There’s so many awkward little lies, ball above your feet, below your feet and then downhill and then you’re hitting up the hill. Things like that you just don’t find anywhere besides maybe here and Augusta or at least that I’ve played."
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
Muirfield Village GC (Memorial)
Augusta National (Masters)
TPC Scottsdale (Phoenix)
Waialae CC (Sony Open)
Pebble Beach Pro-Am
The theme this week is generous landing areas but you also have the coastal connection with Waialae and Pebble Beach. Golfers talk a lot about the undulations on the fairways when they compare it to Augusta National.
Thursday: Sunny with a high of 81 degrees. Strong winds at 15 to 25 MPH.
Friday: Partly cluody with a high of 81 degrees. Winds at 8 to 12 MPH.
There isn't a heavy threat of precipitation but winds will certainly have them second-guessing their club selections for most of the week.
Golfers to Watch
If you saw my Top 150 Rankings then you know I'm a big fan of Thomas this year. It all starts this week as he plays the role of defending champ. He also won the 2017 edition so this is a course/event that really suits him well. That would make him my favorite at the top this week.
He's been the best player on the planet since the COVID restart. Now he heads to a course where, similar to Thomas, he's also won twice (2013, 2018). It's easy to see why he starts the week as a 6/1 favorite on the odds board.
The Spaniard made his equipment change offiical this week as he will now tee it up with Callaway clubs, use a Callaway ball, while rocking Travis Mathew attire. Kapalua is probably one of the worst venues to use clubs that you aren't completely in sync with, due to all of the undulations from tee-to-green. Rahm is a superstar, though, and he's transitioning to these clubs for a while now. This isn't someone handing him a new set of clubs this week and telling him to go play. A complete overhaul in equipment does make you second guess, though, when you have some many strong options the top this week.
The X-Man has a win and playoff loss in his last two trips to Kapalua. He's a budding course horse here in Hawaii. However, he is the golfer I hinted at earlier in the article. Schauffele tested positive for COVID-19 the week before Christmas. That means his prep time for this event is a week at most. Some golfers perform best off a layoff like that while others need to work out the kinks. Hard to say where Schauffele will fall. We saw JB Hansen win the week after returning from COVID on the European Tour and DJ won the Masters just a couple weeks after his return. It is possible to play well right out of the gate when returning from the illness but there are some added risks that gamers should at least consider this week.
If you're looking for the most recent of form the Reed is one of just four golfers in the field who check that box. The Texan traveled overseas to play in the European Tour's final event of their season, the DP World Tour Championship. Reed finished third that week, two shots behind the winner, Matthew Fitzpatrick. Others who pegged it in that event include Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa, and Sungjae Im. This was still a month ago but if you're looking for the tiniest of edges then perhaps give a boost to this bunch. As for Reed, he won this event in 2015, finished runner-up the following year, and also played his way into a three-man playoff last year. It's safe to say he likes the layout.
Ranking the Field
1. Justin Thomas
2. Patrick Reed
3. Dustin Johnson
4. Webb Simpson
5. Daniel Berger
6. Bryson DeChambeau
7. Xander Schauffele
8. Jon Rahm
9. Collin Morikawa
10. Viktor Hovland
11. Tony Finau
12. Hideki Matsuyama
13. Harris English
14. Patrick Cantlay
15. Kevin Kisner
16. Scottie Scheffler
17. Abraham Ancer
18. Sungjae Im
19. Joaquin Niemann
20. Adam Scott