A small but elite group of the PGA’s best will tee it up this week at the Tournament of Champions in Maui.
The field is made up of 34 of the 37 winners from 2017, with only Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose declining invitations.
This tournament isn’t short on star power. Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas are all set to compete for the first time since the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.
Those four are essentially co-favorites in this field, with Spieth and Thomas listed at +600, while Johnson and Fowler check in at +750.
I’ll break down the plays in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at the course. Kapalua Resort’s Plantation course has hosted this tournament since 1999 and is one of the easier stops on tour. It’s one of the rare par-73s with just three par-3s, and it plays at a little over 7,400 yards. The course has some of the easiest fairways to hit and little defense outside of the wind, leading to a lot of low numbers. Two years ago, Spieth won the event at 30-under par, and seven of the last nine winners were 20-under par or lower.
This week, however, the course looks like it might play harder than average because of some high winds. Gusts are expected to be in the 15-20 MPH range all four days, so precision with the irons will be even more important than normal on this course.
With the ease off the tee and the winds in the forecast, I’ll be looking at Strokes Gained: Approach as the primary statistical guide to my picks.
That leads me to my play for the week, Jordan Spieth at +600. Spieth’s record here is impeccable, with the win in 2016 bookended by a third-place finish last year and a second in 2014. His iron game was the best on tour in 2017, and when he struggles, it’s with his driver’s accuracy. That weakness has been mitigated here because of the fairway width. He also played well in the fall with a third-place finish in the Hero when Fowler ran away with the title.
I can count on one hand the amount of times that I backed a tournament favorite last season, but I just don’t see value further down the board that makes me want to jump in at any of the longshots. Because of some tricky lies around the greens and some difficult reads on the putting surface, first-timers rarely win, which eliminates 14 of the 34 players, including guys like Jon Rahm and Patrick Cantlay.
It all leads to picking someone near the top of the board, and given Speith’s track record here, I just feel like he’ll be the best bet to be in the thick of things on Sunday afternoon. Johnson and Thomas also have wins here, but neither has Spieth’s track record of consistency. Johnson’s only top 5 came the year he won in 2013, and the defending champ Thomas was 21st in his other start. Fowler has been solid in his limited starts here with a fifth and sixth, but he was never really in contention in either of those events. I’d probably have Fowler next behind Spieth followed by Johnson, then Thomas at top of the board.
For someone looking for a more balanced card this week, Hideki Matsuyama at 12-1 would be where I’d look first, followed by guys like Kevin Kisner at 25-1 and Jason Dufner at 75-1. All of them have the iron game to contend, I just worry about Matsuyama and Dufner putting well enough to make the 25 birdies or so necessary to win. Meanwhile, Kisner didn’t have the result I was looking for at the Hero, failing to break 70 in his four rounds there. Those reservations led me to just back Spieth instead of taking that normal, balanced approach.
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Spieth is my only play to win, but I’ve targeted a few other players for place bets.
First is a top 5 on Pat Perez at +500. He’s played well here before with a third-place finish last year. He played well in the fall with a win in Malaysia, and he tends to do a lot of his best work on tracks where the scoring is fairly easy.
I’ve targeted a couple players for top 10s. I’ve placed bets on Bryson DeChambeau at +350 and Ryan Armour at +650. Again, these guys are coming in off solid fall results and both ranked fairly high during that time in Strokes Gained: Approach. I don’t really feel like any of the three players mentioned above have what I’m looking for to take down this field, but the form was there the last time they teed it up, and I believe it can continue on this course.
One final play will be a matchup prop for Low Australian. I’m backing Cameron Smith over Marc Leishman at +125. Smith is playing some the best golf of his career and is coming off a recent victory in Australia on the same week as the Hero. The world’s No. 61 player is also one of the few guys in this field without a Masters invite. So he has that little extra motivation to get into the top 50 by the Mar. 26 cutoff date compared to Leishman, who has everything locked up for the year and will not be as inclined to grind out a result if things start slowly.
I’ll be back throughout the week to highlight any matchups and recommend some plays the tournament progresses.
Full Card (Units)
Spieth to win +600 (5.5)
Perez +500 (1)
Dechambeau +350 (1)
Armour +650 (1)
Smith over Leishman for low Australian +125 (1)
Joshua has spent the last five years writing about sports and the last 10 years betting them, mostly on golf. He’s one of approximately five people who will watch the PGA over the NFL in November. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaPerry22
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