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Power Rankings: Sentry Tournament of Champions

By Will GrayJanuary 2, 2018, 11:07 pm

The PGA Tour kicks off 2018 with a trip to Maui for the winners-only Sentry Tournament of Champions. A field of 34 players will tackle Kapalua Golf Club, where the winner will earn an invite back next year.

Be sure to join the all-new Golf Channel Fantasy Challenge - including a new One & Done game offering - to compete for prizes and form your own leagues, and log on to www.playfantasygolf.com to submit your picks for this week's event.

Justin Thomas won this event last year by three shots over Hideki Matsuyama. Here are 10 names to watch in Hawaii:

1. Jordan Spieth: Spieth doesn't hide the fact that Kapalua remains one of his favorite tracks, and his record here reflects it. A runaway winner in 2016, he also finished third last year and was a runner-up in 2014 during his tournament debut. Expect more of the same from the Champion Golfer of the Year this week.

2. Justin Thomas: This is where Thomas got a banner year jumpstarted, as he won the first leg of his Hawaiian double in impressive fashion. He returns to Maui on an entirely different player, having won five times last year including a major and Player of the Year honors.

3. Dustin Johnson: The world No. 1 claimed the title here in 2013, the highlight of a run since 2011 that has included five straight top-10 finishes. Johnson's length is an asset at nearly every Tour track, but it's especially handy at Kapalua where 400-plus yard drives can become commonplace on the hilly terrain.

4. Rickie Fowler: Fowler has only played this event once since 2014, but he's back thanks to a Honda Classic win in February and his record includes a pair of top-6 finishes. Fowler had a remarkably consistent campaign in 2017, and in his last competitive start he rallied to win the Hero World Challenge with a final-round 61.

5. Hideki Matsuyama: Matsuyama nearly chased down Thomas at this event last year, and he finished third in 2015. The Japanese sensation would be higher on this list were it not for a wobbly close to his 2017 campaign, where he seemed to show signs of fatigue and frustration. Given a few weeks to rest, it wouldn't come as a surprise for him to contend this week.

6. Brooks Koepka: The reigning U.S. Open champ showed signs of promise at this event two years ago, when he tied for third. Like Johnson, he has the length to bend Kapalua to his will and also bagged a late-season trophy in Japan. After a one-year hiatus, he's likely eager for a return to the scenic vistas of Maui.

7. Jon Rahm: After a year that exceeded every expectation, Rahm will now make his tournament debut at the winners-only event thanks to his triumph at Torrey Pines nearly a year ago. A winner in Ireland over the summer and Dubai in the fall, Rahm has the game to challenge at any venue and will likely prove it again this week.

8. Pat Perez: Perez doesn't fit the mold of a typical bomber who thrives at Kapalua, but he finished T-10 back in 2010 and tied for third in his return last year. Having booked another flight to Hawaii with a win in Malaysia in October, Perez will look to continue a career resurgence that took him from No. 118 to No. 19 in the world rankings over the past 12 months.

9. Marc Leishman: Leishman enters 2018 in unfamiliar territory as the world's top-ranked Aussie, having passed both Jason Day and Adam Scott with a year that included wins at both the Arnold Palmer Invitational and BMW Championship. While he finished T-23 in his lone prior Maui appearance, that came back in 2013 and Leishman is likely to exceed that result this time around.

10. Cameron Smith: Smith got in with a team victory alongside Jonas Blixt in New Orleans, and while he's making his tournament debut he's a name to watch given the torrid stretch with which he closed out 2017. Smith finished the year with five straight top-5 finishes, including a win on home soil at the Australian PGA last month.

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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.



FALLING

Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”


Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)


Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”

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McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:18 pm

The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.

McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.” 

And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.

“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.” 

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Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 12:44 pm

No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.

Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.

With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.

“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”

Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.