Is this the year Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Phil Mickelson capture the exalted career grand slam? Can Tiger Woods avoid injury and contend in a major championship this season, or (gulp) – even win number 15? Will the hotbed of young talent including Xander Schauffele, Wesley Bryan, and Bryson DeChambeau rise to still greater heights in 2018? The storylines are downright scrumptious as the PGA Tour calendar-year season kicks off in world-class style this week for the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.
Current major champions Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Spieth, and Justin Thomas headline this luminous 36 player field. Held on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, the unconventional par-73 track checks in at 7,425 yards, making it one of the longest setups players will see all season. However, there are plenty of downhill tee shots at Kapalua to make the length less intimidating.
Extremely wide, sloping fairways with minimal rough makes Plantation a second-shot course similar to Augusta National. Players can swing out of their shoes without any risk of peril if they fire slightly offline. Driving Accuracy is almost irrelevant, and only two of the last 10 winners ranked better than 15th in Driving Distance. Players will see a good deal of awkward side-hill lies on approach and big, sweeping breaks on the Bermuda greens. This will put a premium on a slick short game and a hot putter. Putts toward majestic Molokai Island will be lightning fast, while putts away from it will be tediously slow. Ten of the last 13 winners have ranked fourth or better in Putting Average, and each of the 13 champions ranked inside the top-4 in Putts per Green in Regulation.
The average winning score is 23-under par over the last four years at Plantation. However, when the volatile winds start whipping off the North Pacific Ocean, the birdie-fest can come to a screeching halt. Soon par will be a player’s best friend. Eleven of the last 13 winners were ranked third or better in Scrambling for the week.
Powerful elevation changes pose significant distance control challenges, with the first green and the 17th tee set apart by more than 1000 feet. Plantation Course is routed along the West Maui Mountains, and the aesthetics are nothing short of spectacular. Captivating views of the bluffs, Molokai, and whales breaching in the ocean make this Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design a paradise on earth.
Plantation’s dramatic personality and mesmerizing beauty are on full display right out of the gates with the par-4, 520-yard, opening hole. Featuring considerable elevation changes and wicked undulations around the green, No. 1 demonstrates how ball control is crucial to scoring well. Good drives that hit the proper slopes are rewarded with abundant roll that significantly shortens the next shot. Players still need to be careful not to hit their tee shots too far downwind. Finding a deep gorge in the fairway leaves a blind approach to the green. The left-to-right sloping green is generously sized and fairly receptive, however, intricacies on the putting surface make long-range putts difficult to read.
Hole 5 at the Plantation Course
No. 5 isn’t a particularly long par-5 at just 532 yards, but it’s still visually intimidating. The entire hole slopes from left to right with a steep canyon fall-off on the right. This makes playing shots to that side hazardous and foolhardy. On approach, players need to accurately flight their second or third shots to avoid a deep chasm and bunkers that protect the plateau green in the front. The dogleg-right 5th hole is reachable in two, but only with two perfectly executed shots.
There’s little room to bail out on the par-3 203-yard, No. 8. When strong trade winds are up, players need to hit a quality long iron just to hold the putting surface. The green is wide but shallow, and pin positions in the front are especially daunting. Players who short-side themselves and miss in the steep front bunker will be left with an extremely tricky up-and-down, no matter how deftly it’s played.
The jaw-dropping par-4, 549-yard No. 17 is longer than both par-5s on the front-nine (the 532-yard 5th and 521-yard 9th). However, an elevation change of more than 150 feet from tee to green makes it even more accessible. Keeping the tee shot in play is key on the 17th, and will leave players with a second shot that moves right to left and crosses a ravine to reach the green. The putting surface is large and receptive, welcoming anything from a long-running approach to a high flop shot with backspin.
Caddy+ view of No.18 at Kapalua
Despite the 663-yard distance on the par-5, 18th hole, the green is reachable in two. 400-yard drives are the soup du with powerful downwind and a 100-foot elevation change that produces huge roll. A precisely drawn second shot will catch the slope like it’s on a downhill ramp and spiral onto the green for a great look at eagle. No. 18 is arguably the most scenic, dramatic, and quintessential of all holes on Plantation.
Players to Watch
Jordan Spieth is a perennial favorite in Kapalua and absolutely loves the Plantation Course. In three appearances here, Jordan’s picked up a record-shattering victory, a solo runner-up, and a T-3 finish. There’s no need to overthink this one. Spieth is currently riding a streak of six straight top-8 finishes worldwide. Unless he comes out of the gates with some post-engagement hangover, he should record another top-5 finish in Hawaii.
Bryson DeChambeau is making his TOC debut and comes into Hawaii extremely confident, with three strong fall performances where he finished T-17 or better. DeChambeau’s hitting greens at an impressive 76-percent clip so far this season and accurate irons are vital to scoring well at Plantation. Bryson’s shown fantastic touch around the greens and is currently ranked 10th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green. The Achilles for DeChambeau has been his putter, something you have to do well on Plantation’s complex greens if you want to win here.
DeChambeau’s ranked 126th on Tour in Putting Average, but before you completely write him off, consider that could be a somewhat misleading statistic. Bryson’s ranked first on Tour in putts inside four feet and 21st on putts inside 10 feet. DeChambeau has not been terrible at overall putting, he’s been increasingly substandard the further away he gets from the cup. If Bryson can stick it close on approach, he’s in good shape – he’s ranked seventh on Tour in Approaches from 100 to 125 Yards. If Bryson starts overthinking the greens, it’s going to be a long four days for him and he’ll finish in the bottom-5. Alternatively, if DeChambeau gives himself plenty of birdie looks from 10-feet and in, he’s going to shock a lot of people. He could be looking at a finish in the top-5, and even be in contention to win on Sunday.
The last time Brooks Koepka played a course with fairways wider than some driving ranges, he won the U.S. Open at Erin Hills. His prodigious power essentially transformed the course into a wedge competition. Koepka isn’t quite the short game aficionado that Spieth is, but he was intensely sharp with his approach shots at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions and is ranked third on Tour in Greens in Regulation. Koepka’s coming off a last-place finish at the Hero World Challenge, and the Plantation Course is a notoriously difficult venue to make up ground on the leaders. If Koepka can get off to a fast start and avoid the big blow-up holes, he’ll ring in the New Year as a champion.