Ben Coley previews the Tournament of Champions

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Ben Coley returns with his first golf preview of 2021, and it’s Bryson DeChambeau who gets the headline vote in the Tournament of Champions.

Golf betting tips: Tournament of Champions

3pts e.w. Bryson DeChambeau at 11/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)

2pts e.w. Tony Finau at 25/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)

1pt e.w. Sergio Garcia at 70/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)

At first, the Tournament of Champions marked the start of the PGA Tour season, just as it did the beginning of the year. Nice and simple. Then, it was determined (wisely, but whatever) that a ‘wraparound season’ would make more sense. The thing it wraps around is Christmas, I suppose, although it could just as easily be this event, which morphed into a powerful vehicle of reintroduction following a few weeks off. Slightly more complicated, but nothing we can’t handle.

This year, because everything must be different, it’s a little bit different. Following the lead of the WGC-HSBC Champions, which has for a long time extended invites beyond actual champions, this champions-only event has also decided to invite various non-champions. They include the poster boy of non-championness (sic), Tony Finau; except, of course, he is an actual PGA Tour champion. Abraham Ancer and Scottie Scheffler could achieve the hitherto paradoxical feat of winning for the first time in the event which is meant for winners only.

Finau of course is the one people will look to, and you can be sure several tweets have been drafted just in case he actually does win on Sunday night – more on which follows later. My preferred absurdism though is Ryan Palmer, who last won a solo title on the PGA Tour in 2010. Thanks first to Jon Rahm and secondly to, well, the coronavirus, Palmer will have managed to play in both 2020 and 2021 editions of the, all together now, Tournament of Champions.

Ultimately what we have ended up with is the strongest field in the history of the event, despite the fact that Rory McIlroy and Tyrrell Hatton declined their invitations. Thirteen of the world’s top 20 and eight of its top 10 are here, on Maui, to tackle the generous Plantation Course, where only the strong breezes which coloured the final three rounds in 2020 represent a serious challenge.

Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who returned for an expensive and thorough renovation in 2019, this course boasts some of the most spectacular views on the PGA Tour. Along with that come some of its most dramatic elevation changes, and contours which all but guarantee anything bar a flat lie. Fairways are extraordinarily wide, and to further separate it from just about any other course you’ll see in 2021, it is a par 73 with just three par-threes.

It all adds up to something incongruous: a top-class field, complete with the expected dollars and points, doing battle on an island and at a golf course which encourages relaxation. Traditionally, the former overcomes the latter and, as we enter the weekend and leave behind some rust, the final 36 holes tend to be dominated by some of the very best players in the sport – a self-fulfilling prophecy given how hard it is meant to be to get here.

The puzzle this year is complicated by how last year ended. Typically, we’d have had a reliable form guide via the Hero World Challenge, latterly played on a similar course in the Bahamas. It was generally the case that the winner here would’ve played in Tiger’s event, often very well, the theory behind that extending beyond course similarities to the fact that competitive golf in December ensured a level of sharpness which may be absent in others.

This time, the very best players have either been absent since the Masters in November or, as is the case with Justin Thomas, have played in the Mayakoba Classic on a fundamentally different course right at the start of December. Thomas was excellent there after a slow start and went on to win the Father-Son Challenge which, while of absolutely no worth as a form guide, at least means we know he didn’t have the clubs in the garage throughout Advent.

As such he’s preferred to Dustin Johnson, who may well still be drunk by the time he hits the first tee having celebrated hard following his Masters triumph. As well he should. Not that I would be in a rush to draw a line through him – Johnson came out after winning the US Open and picked up a WGC on his next start, and there may be nobody in the sport better equipped to defy a lax preparation. I just don’t think his price, which is 6/1 virtually everywhere, provides compensation for the risk, however small, that he’s not fully engaged.

Jon Rahm has played the game for Callaway and spoken of his immediate success with the new equipment he’s signed up for, but he’s a risky proposition nevertheless. The Spaniard has also been off since Augusta, where he was a little disappointing over the weekend, and returns with new irons, woods, putter and ball, and no guarantee that the transition will be as smooth as he appears to expect. Justin Rose’s Farmers win with Honma in the bag was more exception than rule, and at 15/2 Rahm makes no appeal.

And so we arrive at BRYSON DECHAMBEAU who, at 11/1, is marginally preferred to Thomas and rates much better value than Xander Schauffele, who has only just recovered from a bout of Covid-19 himself.

Key to the appeal here is that DeChambeau could absolutely gobble up the par-fives and handful of short par-fours and produce a performance similar to Johnson’s in 2017, when the Masters champion gained almost nine strokes off the tee and led the field a merry dance because of that.

When DeChambeau last played here, two years ago, he drove it well but not spectacularly, instead leaning on the putter to finish seventh. Now, his methodology transformed, it may be that the Plantation Course is one of those layouts upon which he can be just about the best driver and just about the best putter, and get away with being modest-to-good in the other departments.

Bryson DeChambeau in action at Augusta

That isn’t to say that this course is all about the driver, because it doesn’t have to be – those wide fairways would lead many to label it ‘second-shot’, and that would perhaps be an argument against the US Open champion for all that his 2021 statistics show promise in this area. But it is a course where it’s possible to hit driver off 15 tees if you wish, and I’m excited by the prospect of such a game plan paying off in a way it was never likely to at Augusta.

The fact that he was so disappointing there will surely guarantee a level of preparedness which others may just lack, and don’t forget DeChambeau went off favourite for the Masters. He’s now four points bigger at a course I’m sure does suit him better, for all there are strong links between this event and that one.

My concerns at Augusta were that DeChambeau would be found out with his approaches and what happens when he misses a green. They remain valid to some extent here, at a course which is very different to Winged Foot, but I’d be far more hopeful that he can put his strengths to use – remember, he’s always putted badly in the Masters, but putted superbly, leading the field, when last he played at Kapalua.

The only player with no obvious negatives is Thomas, but the best value on this occasion looks to lie with DeChambeau and for that reason he’s preferred the selection from the front of the market.

Whoever does win, it seems near certain they’ll have produced an outstanding tee-to-green display. Seven of the last 10 winners of this event in fact led the field, and the others were all second or third; it is rare for someone to get as close to winning as Patrick Reed did last January, hitting it as he did then.

Rarer still is for a debutant to win – the last one was Daniel Chopra in 2008 – and that’s another one of those Augusta parallels, related ones including the fact that so few shots are played from the rough, or from a flat lie. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that four of the last six champions here had either already or have subsequently won a Green Jacket. In total, nine players have won at both courses and that’s a fairly strong correlation given the PGA Tour first came here in 1999.

Of course we don’t know today who will go on to win the Masters in April, never mind in the years to come, but it does nevertheless make sense to side with proven Augusta credentials and TONY FINAU fits the bill nicely.

Tenth after doing what he did to his ankle in 2018 before playing with Tiger Woods and Francesco Molinari in the final group in 2019, Finau has been a regular feature in the Masters and he’s also shown how comfortable he is in the wind with a string of solid Open Championship performances.

It’s not surprising then to be able to reflect on an excellent debut here, as he finished ninth back in 2017 when ranked outside the world’s top 75, and that was in spite of a dreadful performance on the greens – he ranked fourth off the tee and tee-to-green, but lost strokes with the putter.

Four years on and while infamously lacking that second PGA Tour win, he’s plainly much improved at 20th in the world and his tee-to-green game is among the most reliable around. In fact having entered that 2017 renewal on the back of ranking 80th in strokes-gained: tee-to-green, mirroring his world ranking, he went on to finish the season in 11th, and has stayed in the top 25 ever since.

Of course it’s disappointing that another chance went begging when we saw him in Mexico in December, but I do like the fact he’s played in a serious tournament since the Masters and having contended in the Bahamas on that similar course they use for the Hero World Challenge, this place really does look ideal for him.

It’s also of note that this is something like a second home, with his mother and wife both born in Hawaii, and Finau said back in 2017 that it ‘holds a dear place in my heart’. He’s been here with the family for a few days in preparation for another excellent opportunity and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he finally took it.

Although it’s incredibly rare to win at the Plantation Course at the first time of asking, a number of players have learned quickly and put that to use on their second visit. Jordan Spieth did here what he did at Augusta, finishing runner-up on debut and winning next time, and since then Schauffele, Thomas and Reed have all done something similar.

That suggests Finau is primed but there are others in the same category, including Joaquin Niemann, whose low ball-flight almost certainly played a part as he successfully battled strong winds last January. The forecast this time is for something a little less severe and I just wonder how much of that effort was built on being a part of Ernie Els’ Presidents Cup side just a couple of weeks earlier, with several of the Internationals beginning 2020 with a bang.

The other debut contender was Collin Morikawa and it was tempting to add him at a very reasonable 28/1.

It’s fair to say Morikawa hasn’t been altogether convincing since winning the PGA Championship in such impressive fashion, but there were better signs towards the end of the year and he kept at it to finish a decent 10th in the DP World Tour Championship on the European Tour.

That’s the most recent top-grade event to have been played and could put him, Sungjae Im and Reed at an advantage, and I really liked the way he went about things here last year when don’t forget he was just six months into his professional career and had only an opposite-field stableford win to his name.

Now confirmed as one of the game’s elite, he’s always to be considered at the price given three wins in 35 starts and the likelihood of similar numbers going forward, and there were only four players better than him from tee-to-green last season.

I must admit that I do like the fact he’s got family in Hawaii and has been a regular visitor, first attending this tournament and then playing the course at the age of nine, especially as two of his three wins so far have been on familiar ground, but at the prices I’m more inclined to chance SERGIO GARCIA this time.

Garcia was one of those rare debut winners here in 2002, thanks to a final-round 64 which helped him recover from sitting 25th of 32 players after his first look around.

It’s 15 years since his last visit, in 2006, and that may just be a statement of intent from the Spaniard in a Ryder Cup year – as well as the fact there’s no big payday in Singapore to tempt him there. Garcia will play both weeks in Hawaii before flying over to the Middle East and that speaks to a determination not just to play what would likely be his final away Ryder Cup, but also to qualify for the Olympics alongside Rahm.

Having won the Sanderson Farms Championship late last year, he’s managed to cling onto his place inside the world’s top 50 and I felt he played nicely enough after that, contending in Vegas, finishing 21st in a good CJ Cup and then missing the cut on a new and difficult course in the Houston Open.

It was during that event in his adopted home state of Texas that Garcia started to feel unwell, which later led to the positive coronavirus test that forced him to miss the Masters, and that blow may also add to his determination to make a strong start to the year.

That’s something he’s been good at – form figures of 13-30-12-2-19-46-7-11-1-8-7 on his post-Christmas return dating back to 2010 perhaps reflect his natural gift – and while up-and-down during the 2020 season, he still ended it ranked fourth in strokes-gained tee-to-green, one place ahead of Morikawa.

Every single one of the players just in front of or just behind him in those charts is considerably shorter in the betting for this, and while there’s a lack of top-grade wins on his CV since the Masters in 2017, the way he closed it out in Mississippi showed he still has magic in those hands and the stomach for it. I think he remains underestimated here and if the greens are as firm as they were in 2020, and the winds as strong, all the better.

Posted at 1900 GMT on 04/01/21

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