Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Sentry Tournament of Champions preview and best bets

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The Sentry Tournament of Champions kicks off 2023 in golf, and Ben Coley is happy to take a chance on former winner Jordan Spieth.

Golf betting tips: Tournament of Champions

2.5pts e.w. Sungjae Im at 22/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)

1.5pts e.w. Jordan Spieth at 33/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)

1pt e.w. Kyoung-hoon Lee at 90/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5)

Sky Bet odds | Paddy Power | Betfair Sportsbook

Looking through the form book for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, it’s hard to escape a feeling of sadness that not only is Cameron Smith not here to defend his title, but that Dustin Johnson is no longer a PGA Tour player.

Johnson’s victory here in 2018 was one of his finest, bettered perhaps only by his 11-shot romp in a FedEx Cup Playoffs event a couple of years later. Brandel Chamblee might’ve infamously gone overboard in declaring a specific shot the best of all time, but the way Johnson drove the ball all week, it was surely one of the best all-round exhibitions of that club.

I’ll miss Johnson and his nonchalant magnificence this year, just as I’ll miss watching Smith duck hook one into the trees and still make birdie. Perhaps even more so, I’ll miss seeing players like Joaquin Niemann and Matthew Wolff find out how good they really can be by testing their games against the best players in the sport, who overwhelmingly remain on the PGA Tour.

Only one of those is absent from the field for what’s now one of the ‘elevated’ events, a move which came about as a direct response to LIV Golf and is designed to ensure the big names gather more often. That’s not something the Tournament of Champions has struggled with, and with Rory McIlroy extending his Christmas break, I doubt the field looks much different to how it would’ve before the, erm, elevation.

It does, however, look a little different to how it should. Pre-pandemic, this was the most exclusive event of the year, open only to those who had won during the preceding 12 months. The decision to expand the qualification criteria to include some non-winners arguably made sense at the end of a disjointed 2020, but to formalise it now is to cheapen the tournament and remove what made it unique.

Players used to talk about what qualifying for this means – and by qualifying, I mean winning. Get back to the Tournament of Champions and you know you’ve had a very good season, that sort of thing. To be here now still demands a successful campaign, but did they really need to invite along a handful of those who didn’t actually win but did make it to East Lake? I don’t think so.

Had the PGA Tour been stricter over the last two years, we might have had two different winners. First, Harris English won his first title for seven years in the event that was meant to be restricted to winners during the past 12 months, and then Smith won it, his qualifying victory having come in a pairs event. Spot the dotted line from that, to Kapalua, to Sawgrass, to St Andrews, and to the other side.

The formula required is directly tied to the weather, because while Kapalua’s Plantation Course is quite a long par 73, it is a cakewalk if soft and unguarded by wind. That was the case last year, when Smith shot a record-breaking 34-under yet only won by a shot, and a reasonably calm forecast suggests another low number will be needed if not quite in Smith’s league.

In 2020, when Justin Thomas won for a second time, scoring was difficult. Two of the three involved in a dramatic play-off putted poorly but got by on their wonderful long-games, whereas under easier conditions the best putter in the field has won both subsequent renewals. It seems highly likely that nobody here can afford to be left behind on the greens unless a zephyr turns into something more.

Otherwise, taking care of the fifth, ninth and 15th holes in particular is a must – these are three easy par-fives, with the 18th playing the longest of four – and strong drivers do generally fare best, though it should be said that Smith, not typically one of those, led the field in strokes-gained off the tee last year. Ultimately this is a collection of the world’s best players taking part in a rust-shedding shootout, so we have to enter it with our eyes open.

Reasons to take a chance on Spieth

It’s putting concerns that put me off two-time winner Justin Thomas, who played well into December and should be sharp enough for this return to a favourite haunt. Thomas might just have emerged from an approach play funk which meant for a quiet end to 2022, but he hasn’t putted well since June and that fact alone means I can resist taking 12/1 about the man who started last year’s tournament as the clear favourite.

Jon Rahm carries that tag now and understandably so, having chased Smith home following a long break and this time kept playing until the Hero Challenge. He was though a shade disappointing there whereas Scottie Scheffler had a chance to win, which he invariably does if he putts to a reasonable standard, and he’s a likely improver on his second look around the course.

Experience does tend to be important and it’s 15 years since a debutant won the title, with multiple champions fairly common. That’s certainly part of the thinking for taking a chance on JORDAN SPIETH, who has questions to answer but is a big price at 33/1 and demands inclusion as a result.

Spieth was never at the races in the Hero Challenge, which so often provides a good guide to this event, having carded an eight and two sixes in his opening round to languish towards the back of the field.

Things did pick up as the week developed, however, and after another eight early on Sunday, he finished with a real flourish: six birdies in 15 holes on a tricky day. It’s a pretty sizeable ‘if’, but had he avoided that mistake at the par-five third, Spieth may well have gone on to shoot the best score given that his 69 was only two off Corey Conners’ field-leading 67.

Given that his only other outing between the Presidents Cup and now came at a really quirky course he hadn’t played before, and that he went 5-0-0 to lead the USA to victory in that team event, my feeling is that he’s dropped too far down the betting. There’s just not that much new evidence to hand, yet Spieth is twice the price he was to win the last major championship he played in.

There are of course reasons for that, not least his fabulous Open record, but having won on his second Kapalua start he loves it here, too. Spieth had been second on debut, threatening to defy historical trends which reveal this such a hard course to learn quickly, and there are clear comparisons with Augusta courtesy of wide targets off the tee, sidehill lies, and severely undulating greens.

Course form figures of 2-1-3-9-21 admittedly look a little regressive, but when ninth he putted horribly, and last year he was still getting to grips with fatherhood having played awfully at the Hero a few weeks earlier. Likely unsuited to the super-soft conditions, Spieth still managed four under-par rounds and signed off with a seven-under 66 to properly reacquaint himself after four long years away.

A winner at the RBC Heritage since, again having drifted to this kind of price at a course he enjoys, Spieth is just that bit too good to ignore. He’ll need to play better than he has in his last two starts, but at the end of the previous season he was striping it before that fabulous performance at Quail Hollow, and we might just need his putter to warm up again for a big run at big odds.

Korean duo worth chancing

At the front of the betting, Xander Schauffele makes some appeal as another former champion who has really taken to this Coore and Crenshaw design. He played nicely in the Bahamas and is in better form than when just outside the top 10 as a 12/1 shot last year, has won a couple of times since, and is probably the safest conveyance among the top five in the market.

Very marginal preference is for SUNGJAE IM, a player who I think might just enjoy a coming-of-age season which potentially starts with a bang here in Hawaii.

Im’s quality all-round game remains easy to underestimate, especially off the tee where he doesn’t perhaps get the credit he deserves, but DataGolf have him ninth in the world and I’m inclined to broadly agree. He’s getting better, too, and while Tony Finau is the man with all the silverware lately, Im has three runner-up finishes in the same short period.

But for McIlroy he might’ve captured the FedEx Cup having been second to Finau and Tom Kim before that, and after two decent performances to begin the new season following on from an exhausting Presidents Cup, he improved as the week went on during his debut in the Hero Challenge last month.

Fifth on his first try here when leading the field in strokes-gained tee-to-green, Im probably ought to have ended that debutant drought only to putt horrendously, and then backed up that effort with eighth place last year. He’s ended every round at the course comfortably inside the top 10 and those Augusta parallels are underlined by two top-10s in the Masters, too.

Also impressive in his first Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne a couple of years ago, Im seems the right type for this kind of creative test and I do like the fact that he was in action in December. That’s in contrast to last year, when he just couldn’t keep up with the relentless pace having been off for an additional month, and he should be sharper this time.

Collin Morikawa also arrives with a perfect return of top-10 finishes at Kapalua, his run standing at three, and it was certainly tempting to side with a player who knows he’s a little lucky to be here. Morikawa played well when selected at a similar price for the Hero and a final-round 62 here last year, coupled with his close connections to Maui, make him of definite interest.

That putter of his has to be the worry, for all that the Bahamas offered some promise, but if he’s to skip the Sony Open again then he’ll be desperate to make the most of this one Hawaii start in 2023. Morikawa is highly motivated, course-proven, and obvious shortlist material as he seeks his first win in more than a year.

Brian Harman and JT Poston shouldn’t have their putters as an excuse and the former is interesting, as he was always in the mix the last time he played here and returns in similarly good form.

However, it’s approaching six years since the second of two PGA Tour wins and 40/1 is short enough, so I’ll complete the staking plan with KH LEE.

Impressive at the Presidents Cup in September, it’s been an excellent couple of seasons for Lee, winner of back-to-back renewals of the Byron Nelson Championship.

Both came at TPC Craig Ranch and while it’s a different challenge to this one in many ways, the width of the fairways and emphasis on low scoring are two strong similarities. Lee clearly loves the place, and having fended off a red-hot Sam Burns plus Daniel Berger in 2021, he dealt with a trio of world-class, Kapalua champions last year.

Since then he’s bagged a couple of high-profile top-fives at the BMW Championship and the CJ Cup, and he was one of the gems of Trevor Immelman’s Internationals at Quail Hollow, where he won two of his three matches including a fine Sunday singles display against Billy Horschel.

The only cut he’s missed in the USA since April came at Colonial in May, after he’d won and then played in a major and was surely out of gas, and having flushed it when third to McIlroy at Congaree he simply looks an improved player at the very top of his game. That he kept the wheels turning to take part in the QBE Shootout also helps, as it should ensure he’s ready to go.

Lee was down the field on his first look at Kapalua but that’s not uncommon, and neither is a big jolt of improvement for the look around. He did at least improve his score every day and while it’s an enormous ask to see off a field featuring 17 of the world’s top 20, his strong driving might just lay the foundations for a career-best display.

Posted at 1810 GMT on 02/01/23

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