Kirk to make most of Hawaii trek
Ben Coley previews the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and fancies Chris Kirk to go close at 33/1.
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A field of 30 heads to Hawaii for the traditional curtain-raiser to the PGA Tour season, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
Of course, the tour's new wrap-around schedule means that the season is already under way, but I see no reason why that will change the dynamics of an event which has been kind to Americans of late.
Naturally, the field is American-heavy in terms of numbers so perhaps the most impressive record in the event is that of Australia, responsible for five of the last nine winners, thanks in the main to the exploits of three-time champion Stuart Appleby.
With that in mind, many will be happy to side with deserved 11/2 favourite Adam Scott, who is without question one of the two best golfers in the world on current form.
Scott will, of course, have been disappointed not to land the triple crown back home, with Rory McIlroy spectacularly denying him the Australian Open a few weeks back, but having had time to reflect upon that he'll look back on 2013 as the best year of his career by some distance.
Now a major champion and playing with the confidence of a man who at last knows how good he is, Scott is likely to be a factor just about wherever he turns up in what will be a typically light schedule and, with form here to his name, is the man to beat.
However, I'm not sure there's much juice in 11/2 even if he does have only 29 players to beat, particularly as Scott doesn't need to win here to trigger a big year - he has all the momentum he needs and his focus will be on the majors.
Similar comments apply to those who follow Scott in the market. Defending champion Dustin Johnson closed out 2013 with a deserved WGC success and can go well. Like last year, he's arrived early and as a coastal-golf specialist with a superb strike-rate his claims are obvious, but surely no better than 8/1 implies.
Matt Kuchar plays well here but he plays well just about anywhere and he holds no secrets from the layers. He's backable if you happen to fancy him strongly and you can take encouragement from three wins in 50 starts, and places in each of his last three. But at 8/1, he's not for me either.
Zach Johnson is in startlingly good form but has an underwhelming record here so at 14/1 he's opposed easily, and while I wouldn't be so quick to move past Webb Simpson, again he looks to have a decent chance but no better than his odds. I'm sometimes asked why I don't just back the player I fancy the most but the truth is here, I've no way of splitting Kuchar, DJ or Webb, really.
There is, however, one player I really like the look of and that man is Chris Kirk, who can be backed at 33/1.
Kirk arrives here in form having won his last start, and while his victory owed much to the implosion of Briny Baird there's no denying the quality of Kirk's all-round game in the McGladrey Classic.
That event was one he was desperate to win as it's hosted by friend and mentor Davis Love III, and landing this year's renewal was extra special as it gave Georgia-born Kirk a ticket to the Masters in April.
What really impressed me was the quality of Kirk's game on and around the greens at Sea Island. It's an area he has long targeted as one to improve and judged on that performance and his stats throughout 2013, the work at home has paid off.
I therefore think 2014 is a big year in his career. Kirk of course has the Masters to look forward to but just as important is that he becomes a more regular feature on PGA Tour leaderboards because if he can do that, a top-50 world ranking is just around the corner and that means access to the biggest events throughout the season.
The good news for Kirk and his fans is that he has an excellent chance to climb into the top 50 at the first opportunity because the Plantation Course at Kapalua is a venue which perfectly suits his game.
Kirk's best PGA Tour results have almost all come under circumstances faced this week. Quite simply, he's best on a coastal layout where low numbers are required - he showed that not only when winning at Sea Island but when second to Brandt Snedeker at Pebble Beach last February.
His other PGA Tour win came in what was the Viking Classic, an event which has always required exceptionally low numbers, and with upwards of 20 birdies needed to win here it makes sense to have a birdie-maker like Kirk on side. In three full years on tour, he's ranked 27th, 28th and 13th in birdie average.
Kirk has, of course, played here once before. Back in 2012, he tied for seventh despite an opening 75 - that left him one shot off last after round one and eight behind the leader so it's impressive that he climbed so far up the leaderboard thereafter.
There is also more to that debut round at the course than meets the eye. Kirk's scheduled partner, Lucas Glover, was forced to withdraw leaving Kirk to play on his own, which interrupted his rhythm as he was forced to wait on every shot. Realising his mistake, Kirk then played with a marker in round two and made five birdies and an eagle in a seven-under 66.
It's impossible to know what would have happened had Kirk had a partner to play with from the start but what I'm certain of is he's best judged on the other 54 holes, which saw him shoot 16-under. That sort of scoring puts him right in the mix here.
Finally, that tie for seventh isn't the only evidence of Kirk getting off to a fast start after a Christmas break. Last year he finished tied for fifth on his first event of the campaign - that also came in Hawaii - while in both 2010 and 2011 he recorded a top-10 finish in one of his first two starts.
All things considered, 33/1 looks a good price about this two-time PGA Tour winner with conditions to suit.
I had expected to leave it at that but I can't resist a small bet on Scott Brown at 66/1.
Brown's PGA Tour victory came at the Puerto Rico Open on a coastal course and he's spoken of how he's enjoyed the challenge of playing there when the wind blows, having also been fifth back in 2012.
Couple that with a share of fourth in the aforementioned McGladrey Classic and a decent start to 2013 when he shared 30th at Pebble Beach, and there's reason enough to believe that Brown has the game to suit the conditions.
Certainly, he makes enough birdies - look at his performance in the 2012 John Deere Classic for further evidence of that - and given that he has a win and two places in his last 25 starts, the price on offer looks generous.
Brown has been at the course since Saturday so should be familiar with his surroundings, and that early-arrival policy worked wonders for Dustin Johnson last year.