Tournament of Champions Preview, Picks & Analysis
THE PGA Tour awakens from its brief winter hibernation with the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. It is a hard life being a golfing superstar. Just think – you have to spend a week playing the Plantation Course at Kapalua on one of the most beautiful islands on earth, staying in luxurious accommodation, eating fabulous food, with every need catered for and looked after. You wouldn’t want it, would you?
Theoretically, the field comprises every golfer who won a tournament on Tour in 2017. But, as usual, there will be one or two absentees. It is difficult to understand why anybody would want to give this event a miss, unless it has something to do with the fact that Justin Thomas is in the field and everybody else may feel that they are playing for second place.
Thomas had an astounding year, winning the US PGA Championship, the FedEx Cup, five tournaments, $9.9m in prize money and an additional $10m FedEx Cup bonus. He also had a 59, as well as a 63 at the US Open. Oh yes, and he began the 2017-18 season with yet another victory. Thomas is just 24 years old and has already won seven times. He weighs 145lb, hits the ball into the middle of next week and is one of the finest putters in the game. Unbelievably, the world rankings have him as the third best golfer in the world – few of his peers believe that Dustin Johnson, the No. 1, and Jordan Spieth, at No. 2, are better than Thomas.
Of course, these things are cyclical and it will be fascinating to see how the likes of Spieth, Johnson, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama respond to the standards Thomas is currently setting.
Needless to say, Thomas is the defending champion. It was won by Spieth in 2016, by Patrick Reed in 2015, by Zach Johnson in 2014, by Dustin Johnson in 2013, by Steve Stricker in 2012 and by Jonathan Byrd in 2011.
So, if not Thomas, who is the most likely winner of the first tournament of 2018? We will quickly find out who has been working hardest over the past few weeks, and who has been over-indulging on the Christmas turkey.
Xander Schauffele was the breakout player of 2017, capping it all with victory in the Tour Championship for what was his second victory of an outstanding season. He is only 24 years of age and when you watch him in full flow it is difficult to make yourself believe that 2017 was his rookie season. He is a certainty to lock down a place in Jim Furyk’s Ryder Cup team and, although this will be his first appearance at Kapalua, it is a course that should suit him down to the ground. It is fair to say that this is not the most difficult track these guys face, with wide open fairways and perfect putting surfaces, as well as the fact that the Tournament of Champions features a restricted field. Its only real defence is the wind that blows in off the Pacific Ocean.
This is going to be a big year for Rickie Fowler. He has watched Thomas, Spieth, Koepka and Dustin Johnson win majors while he still awaits his first. It is not so very long ago that he finished in the top five in all four majors in one season. Who would have believed that as we headed into 2018, he would still be searching for his first? Fowler is a wonderful player, with no weaknesses, but the longer he goes without that major, the harder it is going to be to achieve it – just ask Sergio Garcia, who required 70 attempts before winning The Masters last year. And Fowler is not the only one – Matsuyama keeps putting himself in position but is also still waiting.
Open champion Spieth remains head and shoulders above every other player on the planet with the short stick in his hands and has apparently spent the winter working on his driving. He misses a lot of fairways, which puts a great deal of pressure on his short game. Imagine what he can achieve if he plays most of his second shots from the middle of the fairway.
Johnson knows that he is under pressure at the top of the rankings and, as a previous winner, this course is made for him. He hits the ball so far that he can reach almost all of the par fives with a drive and a short iron, and that makes this a very simple game. He can be a streaky putter but when he starts holing them it is like shelling peas. My money is on him going head to head with Thomas for another title.
To Win: Dustin Johnson. Determined to reassert himself
Each Way: Justin Thomas. A winning machine
Each Way: Rickie Fowler. On a high after winning the Hero Challenge
Dustin Johnson. Under pressure at top of the rankings
Justin Thomas. Can anybody beat him?
Rickie Fowler. A huge year for Fowler
Xander Schauffele. Watch him go in 2018
Jordan Spieth. Keeps getting better and better
Hideki Matsuyama. Much depends on his putting.
Brian Harman. Hugely underrated
Billy Horschel. Determined, cussed character
Daniel Berger. Surely the next of the young guns to win a major
Brooks Koepka. The complete player
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