The PGA Tour heads to Maui to kick off the 2023 schedule at the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
As the name suggests, the field is loaded with all of the winners from last year. As we've seen in recent years, they've also invited anyone that made it to East Lake last year. The result is 40 eligible golfers this week with 39 of them making the trip. World No. 1 Rory McIlroy is the lone opt-out.
New for this year's edition, we see it marked as an elevated or "designated" event. That means that $15 million is up for grabs, up from $8.2 million last year. There is also 550 FedExCup Points available for the winner, 50 more than last year.
The Plantation Course at Kapalua is the star of the show this week. This Coore and Crenshaw design was laid out in the early 90s and received some touch-ups in 2019.
Glancing at the scorecard, we see a rare par 73 layout that features just three par 3s, but 11 par 4s.
With only three par 3s to worry about, scoring opportunities are maximized and we saw that to the extreme last year. Matt Jones bettered the previous PGA Tour scoring record by reaching 32 under for the week. He finished third. Jon Rahm set the new record for most birdies in a week (32). He finished second. It was Cameron Smith who clipped them with a 34 under winning tally. Smith won't be defending his title this week as he's no longer a PGA Tour member.
Off the tee, golfers will see extremely wide fairways and also rough that doesn't heavily penalize missed fairways. The field has managed 70% GIR when missing the fairway. That's certainly lower than attacking from the fairway (84%) but not an extreme dropoff. You can grip it and rip it for the most part.
One key feature at Kapalua is the elevation and rolling nature of the terrain. As Rickie Fowler put it, "Outside of Augusta, I mean it's probably the only place where you get lies like that. And TV doesn't do it justice. I was on 17 kind of above the hole after I tried to cover the ball, but I couldn't. It wasn't even really that bad of a swing. It was just that much slope. I stepped through like Gary Player used to. But you never get those lies really anywhere else."
The way the holes are set up leads to a lot of wedges but also a fair amount of approaches from outside of 200 yards. If a golfer typically shines with their mid-irons, they won't get to utilize that skill quite as much as Kapalua.
The course is wall-to-wall bermudagrass and the large, grainy greens feature a lot of big, swooping putts. Since the coastal winds are often present, they do run on the slow side, typically around 10.5 feet on the stimp.
It's important to remember this is a resort course and is not set up to punish these top pros. With golfers returning from the holiday break, the PGA Tour lets them shake off the cobwebs with bunches of birdies.
Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
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. So I think it's a fair comparison.
Rahm: "I think as you come from Arizona and we have greens are rolling 12, 13, there's not that much wind. Then you get here, because of the wind these greens are to be slower, it's a bit of an adjustment period, right? I'm not the only one who struggles, I would say most people who don't have a good week I would probably think that the putting might be the No. 1 contributing factor to the difference between the winner to somebody who is in 15th place."
Justin Thomas: "It's a place that it's all right in front of you, you don't necessarily need to come here that sharp, it's pretty big fairways, big greens, you have a lot of wedges, a lot of birdie opportunities."
Using historical data we can look at overperformance and underperformance at this week's host course and compare that to all of the courses played out on Tour. Here are the ones that shared a lot of overlap:
This list is mostly driver-heavy courses that don't heavily punish misses off the tee.
Thursday: Mostly sunny with a high of 80 degrees. Winds at 8 to 16 MPH.
Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 80 degrees. Winds at 9 to 22 MPH.
The field is small so there are no tee-time waves to worry about. This is Hawaii so beautiful weather is to be expected. Friday does look to be a bit windier than Thursday but nothing these stars can't handle.
Players to Watch
In the past, he's talked about struggling to adjust to the green speeds at Kapalua. Yet, he went on to circle 32 birdies last year, setting the new PGA Tour record for most birdies in a 72-hole event. I guess you could say he figured out the greens, but if there is one area that holds him back this week, it will probably be the flat stick.
While Rahm gets worried about the greens, Spieth has no issues dialing in the putter at Kapalua. He's gained 14.4 strokes putting at the course over his last 20 rounds here. That is best in the field and it lines up with his play style and past quotes on Bermudagrass preference. He said this back at the 2016 TOC, "I feel comfortable on any course with Bermuda, more so than I feel anywhere else. So that has to do with it, too."
The 15-time Tour winner is a regular at the Tournament of Champions. It's easy to see why he's made the trip every year, even before it was an elevated event. Thomas has gained strokes on approach in 86% of his rounds at Kapalua which is best in the field, even if you count small samples from other golfers. His creativity and shot-shaping skills are a valuable asset here and he should be considered one of the top contenders to start the week.
The lanky Texan is a wildcard this week as he returns from injury that has sidelined him since the FedExCup Playoffs. It was herniated disc trouble that he was dealing with which sounds painful but it's promising that he's returning to action so soon.
Want to follow the Aussie narrative? Scott is the lone Australian in the field. Historically, Aussies have talked about the similarities between the grasses and green style here at Kapalua compared to back home in Australia. Scott has finished seventh or better in four of his seven previous trips to Maui. That includes a runner-up finish during the 2007 edition.
Speaking of narratives, what about the local narrative? Finau has family on the island and definitely circles this event as a big one, as a result. He's finished ninth, 19th, and 31st in three tries here so comfort on the island is no guarantee of success. Others with some family ties to Hawaiian golf include Xander Schauffele and Collin Morikawa.
Ranking the Field
1. Jon Rahm
2. Xander Schauffele
3. Patrick Cantlay
4. Scottie Scheffler
5. Tony Finau
6. Justin Thomas
7. Matt Fitzpatrick
8. Sungjae Im
9. Viktor Hovland
10. Collin Morikawa
11. Will Zalatoris
12. Tom Kim
13. Max Homa
14. Jordan Spieth
15. Cameron Young
16. Brian Harman
17. Sam Burns
18. Corey Conners
19. Aaron Wise
20. Hideki Matsuyama
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