THERE’S a lot of hokum associated with golf. In fact, you sometimes wonder if the sport was designed for folk who like to be puffed up with their own importance. There are tournaments forever bragging about prominence, courses with a wonky appreciation of uniqueness, sponsors who believe their own bluster, and players with the brass neck to talk of fostering change in new golfing destinations while casually stuffing cash down their trousers as if in a 1970s game show.
Which makes the traditional opening event of the year – the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions – something of a refreshing change. Admittedly, last year it had more than mere champions in it (and was even won by someone lacking a win in the previous 12 months), but it had a very good excuse because Covid had wrecked the schedule so it was a one-off fix.
In all other respects, the event is perfect as a post-holiday return to action, mostly thanks to the wonderful venue. Because the Plantation Course at Kapalua doesn’t just claim to offer something different – it genuinely delivers, as was more or less inevitable given the plot of land it sits on. Not many scorecards fail to tell a story quite so comprehensively as this one, with short par-4s that climb arduous hills and long par-4s that drop enormous heights. Throw in the typically strong trade winds and caddies, exhausted by the walk, must feel like tossing the yardage book in the bin.
It’s a track that, unless that wind really blows, is begging to be attacked. Clearly, that helps the big-hitters, but it’s not quite so straightforward as that. Those slopes and breezes call for imagination. There will be times in the week when a golfer wallops his ball 50 yards wide of his target, allowing first the wind, and then the turf, to do their thing.
It makes for entertaining viewing, especially as it is all takes place on Hawaii’s cliff-tops with the Pacific Ocean as a glistening back drop. Sit back, enjoy the return to action, and here are three players who can get involved at the top of the leaderboard.
Each Way – Xander Schauffele at 14/1
With no less than 13 players priced 20/1 or shorter the top of the market is a tough nut to crack. Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay and Collin Morikawa had superb 2021s, Viktor Hovland and Sam Burns made big strides, Jordan Spieth likes the test, Hideki Matsuyama is a lively threat, and Justin Thomas has two wins and two thirds in his last five visits. But all of their prices look about right with one exception – Xander Schauffele.
The first big tick is his fondness for an elite-level event with a small field and no cut. He’s on paper as saying it suits his mindset, and he’s proved it with victory in the Tour Championship, the WGC HSBC Champions and last year’s Olympics. The second tick is provided by his tournament record, which not only reiterates the first point, but also proves that he loves the test.
Back in 2019 he thrashed a brilliant final round 62 to claim the title in his second visit, a year later he led after 36 and 54 holes before losing out in a play-off, and last year he added fifth place to that log-book. After winning his gold medal in the summer he enjoyed the fuss that came with it, but he also needed the holiday period to reset, and this is the ideal spot to re-emerge.
Each Way – Patrick Reed at 28/1
Last January Patrick Reed was flying, landing top 20s for fun in the major championships and winning the Farmers Insurance Open. His year turned sour, however, with form issues, a mysterious illness, associated rumours, and non-selection for the Ryder Cup. But he ended the year with a fast-finishing second place in the Bermuda Championship and tied third at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. That’s strong form on tropical islands and he can ride the wave this week (albeit metaphorically, rather than physically, given he’s now on the other side of America).
What’s most beguiling about Reed’s record in the event is the frequency with which he gets involved at the top of the leaderboard. He was a winner in his second visit, was top three all week when second on defence in 2016, third at halfway when sixth in 2017, second after 36 holes when losing a play-off in 2020, and third after round one 12 months ago. In other words, he’s been top three at the end of rounds one, two or three in five of his last six starts and he can contend again this year.
Each Way – Joel Dahmen at 70/1
Third pick needs to venture away from the favourites and best of the outsiders could be Joel Dahmen. The popular American is making his debut, but plenty of his best golf offers clues that he might like this test. His ability to play on undulating fairways? He’s been second at TPC Deere Run. Playing on cliff-tops overlooking the Pacific? Top 10 at Torrey Pines. In Hawaii? T12th at the Sony Open in 2020 (after making a terrible start). Coping with blustery winds? Sixth at El Camaleon. But, best of all, he more or less combined all these features when winning in the Dominican Republic last March.