The Tournament of Champions on the US Tour brings together the winners from last season. The winners of the four majors qualify but Danny Willett and Henrik Stenson are not playing, Jimmy Walker is not suited to the course so Dustin Johnson has the best chance of the major champions from 2016 to begin the new season with a win. Johnson and Daniel Berger are the only players who finished inside the top 50 last season in the key skills for this week. Thirty-two of the 38 eligible players are competing.
The season opener has been played at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort in Hawaii since 1999. It’s long, hilly course which provides a test of physical stamina. It has really wide fairways leading to very large greens. They are Bermuda in nature and relatively fast. With only three par 3s the course has an unusual par 73. The par 5s provide plenty of eagle and birdie opportunities but the Kona trade winds can send scores soaring. However, they have not been a factor in the last six years and the average winning score over this spell is 22 under par.
The key to success lies on the difficult greens but long hitting is also an advantage. Another factor to consider is form over the close season, either in off-season American tournaments or on the Australian Tour. These players are unlikely to be rusty but there are few qualifiers this year. Overall the identikit picture of the player most likely to win is a course experienced guy with a hot putter, able to play well in the wind and he’ll probably be a longer hitter and not an outsider.
Jordan Spieth won this tournament at the start of last year with a score of 30 under which is not quite a course record for the event. In 2003 Ernie Els won by 8 strokes with a score of 31 under, the same margin of victory that Spieth achieved in 2016. He led the field in strokes gained putting and tee to green and ranked third for proximity to the hole. The evidence suggests driving distance, total putts and greens in regulation are the main attributes required for good scoring.
That profile brings Johnson into the mix because he was a top 50 player for each skill last season. He finished second for driving distance and won the US Open which is all about finding the greens in the correct number of shots and not wasting strokes through moderate putting. Johnson has recovered from some issues away from the course and is now focused on his profession. He was the champion in 2013 and is one of the best tee to green scorers in the game. Johnson has won on the PGA Tour in eight of the last nine seasons and can make that nine from 10 this week.
Three of the last four winners of the Tournament of Champions were future or current major champions in Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Zach Johnson. Spieth has a good record on the course and won in Australia in his latest official start so is a leading contender. Zach was winless last season and did not qualify so Daniel Berger enters the equation. He is a debutant in the event and a first-timer has not prevailed since 2008 but Berger’s skills profile makes him hard to ignore.
He finished inside the top 50 for driving distance, greens hit and total putting last season and that record gives him a chance despite the lack of course experience. He excels on Bermuda greens and finished joint second in the WGC-HSBC Champions at the back end of last year. He has no fear about taking aggressive strikes to the greens and he is the type of player who has won in the past because of a hot putter. Berger is American and US players have won six consecutive titles after overseas players won the previous nine editions.
Tiger Woods won this tournament in 1997 and 2000 but is a notable absentee. He never came close to competing last season and it will be fascinating to see if he is the field this time next year. If so he will have won a tournament which could be the Masters in April. However, before the Woods soap opera begins there is a title to be won this week and Johnson and Berger are the two against the field.