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Back in the Swing: Who Has the Best Shot to Win and Surprise in the PGA Opener

By: Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads

Welcome back to golf.

The calendar year begins as it always has, with the Sentry Tournament of Champions (TOC) on the Plantation Course at Kapalua in Maui. The TOC has historically only included players who won a PGA sanctioned tournament the previous year, but with the shortened season in 2020, this year’s field also includes everyone who made the Tour Championship at East Lake.

It all adds up to a loaded field in Hawaii this weekend. In fact, Rory McIlroy and Tyrrell Hatton are the only top 10 players in the world not in attendance.

The Plantation Course is a resort course with massive fairways, huge greens, and a ton of elevation. Like most of Hawaii, the course sits on the side of a volcano, with the front nine playing up the mountain and the back nine playing towards the ocean.

We’ll see some 400-yard drives on No. 17, which plays straight downhill and makes the 550-yard hole play more like a regular 450-yard par 4.

The Plantation Course at Kapalua

Last year, Greens in Regulation on this course was about 80%, one of the highest numbers on tour. The average green size is 8,722 square feet, so hitting greens isn’t a problem. But this does make putting more important than usual, and you’ll see plenty of 40-foot putts with 12 feet of break.

While the course director did make the course a bit more challenging prior to last year’s tournament, the biggest factor in scoring output this weekend will be the wind. If the wind is howling, you’ll see a winning score in the low teens. If conditions are calm, we could see a winner reach 30-under par, as Jordan Spieth did in 2016.

With eight par 4s playing under 450 yards and four par 5s, players who excel on these two hole types will see an advantage this weekend. With the field this strong, the winner is likely to come from the top tier of players.

TOP PICK

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

XANDER SCHAUFFELE

Xander put together perhaps the most impressive resume for a non-winner in 2020. He missed one cut and finished 64th once, but finished in the top 25 of every other tournament. Though he was consistently in the hunt, Xander blew a couple of chances to come out on top.

As a four-time winner, he’s no stranger to finishing first on tour, and 2021 could be a big year for him. The one caution heading into this week is Xander’s recent bout of COVID. He’s said he hasn’t been able to get all the practice time he would like.

Stats Perform’s model projects Xander to top the field on the par 5s this weekend, gaining 0.90 strokes per round on those while also gaining 0.93 strokes per round on the short par 4s – third to Justin Thomas (plus-1.00) and Bryson DeChambeau (plus-0.95). The model gives Xander an 11.0% chance of taking home the Tournament of Champions trophy.

OTHERS WHO COULD CONTEND

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

ADAM SCOTT

Scott’s acceptance to the Tournament of Champions is raising a lot of eyebrows. Scott rarely attends tournaments like this, so it may be an indication he plans to play more this year. He’s made a putter switch, moving from the broomstick to a shorter putter that it looks like has a grip for arm locking. His putting has been abysmal, so getting worse is hard to do.

With fairways up to 100 yards wide, Scott’s newfound driving distance and his lack of driving accuracy could play well this week. He’s projected to be the fourth-best performer on the short par 4s (plus-0.82 strokes), but middle of the pack in par 5 scoring. What the model likes about Scott is that his best is better than most other’s bests. In other words, he’s a bit like Dustin Johnson in that he isn’t the most consistent but can put up some ridiculous scores when he’s on his game.

He has the seventh-best chance of victory this weekend at 5.1%.

ABRAHAM ANCER

It’s another great course fit for Ancer, who performs exceptionally well on short par 4s. He’s projected to be sixth in the field on such holes, gaining 0.73 strokes per round. He’s projected to be completely average on the long par 4s and par 5s, so those short par 4s are where he’ll have to pick up strokes. Overall, our model gives him a 3.2% chance of winning this weekend.

LONGSHOTS WHO COULD SURPRISE

RYAN PALMER

Palmer, ranked 30th in the world, has added distance with his age, and strung together a fantastic resume since the COVID break. While he didn’t come up with a victory, he pushed Jon Rahm at the Memorial and rallied to tie for fourth at the ZOZO. Driving accuracy tends to be his weakness, but the huge fairways should help mitigate that this weekend. Expect a great performance on the par 5s, where Stats Perform projects him to gain 0.60 strokes per round.

KEVIN NA

Na disappointed last year at the TOC, but his early season struggles were largely due to some injury issues. He’s one of the best putters on tour, and it will serve him well at a course where greens are huge and long putts are something everyone will see. If he’s reading it right, he can set the greens on fire and rattle off 20-footer after 20-footer.

FAVORITE DRAFTKINGS GPP PLAYS

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Dustin Johnson ($11,000)

Jon Rahm ($10,400)

Xander Schauffele ($10,000)

Patrick Cantlay ($9,800)

Patrick Reed ($9,600)

Hideki Matsuyama ($9,000)

Tony Finau ($8,900)

Adam Scott ($8,100)

Abraham Ancer ($8,000)

Sergio Garcia ($7,700)

Ryan Palmer ($7,000)

Mackenzie Hughes ($6,800)

Kevin Na ($6,700)

Nick Taylor ($6,200)

 

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