Ben Coley has four recommended bets as he looks to double-up in the Tournament of Champions, where he bagged a 28/1 winner last January.
The Sentry Tournament of Champions marks the start of a new decade of PGA Tour golf, as 15 debutants and 19 past visitors assemble at Kapalua for what has traditionally developed into a rust-shaking shootout, one won by Xander Schauffele after a blistering Sunday 62 last January.
Schauffele is back to defend his title and he's now third best in the market, behind only Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas. That's largely because he won the tournament, of course, but his price having contracted all the way to 7/1 from 28s also has something to do with Rory McIlroy's absence, alongside that of Tiger Woods.
Still, this is an elite field, and Schauffele looks short enough. He was the world number 10 a year ago and he was in good form; he'll tee off this time in similar shape as the world number nine. Of course, we now know for sure what many expected - that his Hawaii connections and course suitability could win him this title - but for all his class, the Californian had to be the first name off the shortlist.
No doubt JIM HERMAN would've been vying for that role with many, but this 500/1 rag makes the staking plan here having impressed when 12th on his first and only competitive start at the Plantation Course back in 2017.
It's impossible to understate the value of a look around, as Schauffele demonstrated again, improving from a debut 22nd to win in sensational fashion. Thomas had done the same, winning a year after he'd been 21st, and Patrick Reed went from 16th to first across his first two goes. The last first-time visitor to win was Daniel Chopra in 2008, and only elite players have so much as threatened to overcome what's a serious disadvantage.
Why would it matter so much here? Because the Plantation is almost unique among courses which feature regularly on the PGA Tour, with the combination of dramatic elevation changes and sidehill lies making it a hard place to figure out, especially once the wind is factored in. Plus, the old greens offered so few pin options that those who'd been before knew exactly what to expect.
Herman is therefore one of just 19 players at a distinct advantage, and that sets him apart from Max Homa, Tyler Duncan and Martin Trainer at the foot of the market, as well as Lanto Griffin, Sunghoon Kang, Nate Lashley and Adam Long a little further up. Towards the front, Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Joaquin Niemann are good enough to compete regardless, but now surely isn't the time to be backing them.
There's also more than one visit, in which he ranked third for greens hit and finished only three shots shy of a place, which ties Herman to the venue. Back in 2005, when he was an assistant professional in Florida with no real ambitions to make it to the top, he hopped off the boat on which he and his wife were honeymooning to play a round here. Herman says he couldn't resist, and it's clear he's particularly fond of the golf course.
It perhaps won't be worth enough to bridge the obvious gap between his capabilities and the world-class players much more likely to contend, but Schauffele's Hawaii connections were a small factor in his Sunday thrust here and Herman, who won in Kentucky last summer, is sure to tee off in a great frame of mind.
His form since a second PGA Tour victory in the Barbasol Championship has been unspectacular, but he played his best golf since on his final start of 2019, shooting four good rounds for 35th in the RSM Classic. We also know that he can take care of the best players in the world, because his previous win came at the expense of Henrik Stenson in second and Dustin Johnson in third.
In an event where course knowledge has been vital, Herman's eye-catching debut here - when he sat second after the opening round - marks him out as interesting. At 300/1 generally and 500/1 with several, he just has to be worth a roll of the dice.
There is one potential spanner in the works when it comes to that experience angle - the fact that Kapalua's Plantation Course has undergone a full-scale revamp since last year's renewal, led by original designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, among the most revered in the game.
The ambition behind the project, one which saw 33,000 tonnes of sand brought in on three barges from neighbouring Oahu, is to restore the course to one which challenges professionals and is fun for amateurs. Mark Rolfing, who helped establish this event, was not alone in feeling that the Plantation had become too much about big-hitting for the best in the world, who could carry their ball over all the trouble and didn't have to think too much about how to approach things.
That view was underlined by Cameron Champ last year, when he confessed to reaching for driver on virtually every tee, and everything that has happened since has been with the aim of making the course firmer, faster, and more mentally demanding. New tees, a couple of which are further back, plus additions like a bunker in the middle of the fifth fairway, are intended to challenge this field to think before they hit; to work out the best angle of attack.
All of this sounds positive, but in the short-term, adjustments are expected to take a while to bed in - specifically the firming up of the turf, which was exceptionally soft in 2019 and has since been completely relaid. For now, we probably shouldn't expect wholesale changes, though early reports do indicate that scoring will not be quite so low as we've come to expect.
With more debutants here than in any of the previous 15 years, along with some potentially world-class rookies like Wolff and Morikawa, we may well see a small shift in the balance of power, and I'm keen to side with TYLER DUNCAN in some way on what's his first visit.
An impressive winner when last seen, taking down tournament favourite Webb Simpson in a play-off for the RSM Classic, Duncan will be walking on air as he tees it up here with a Masters invite safely tucked away, not to mention a two-year exemption.
He signed off last season striping his irons - Rolfing says approach play will be all the more important following the changes - and we know for sure that Duncan at his best is hugely adept in the wind because he's played much of his best golf by the coast.
I also like that he brings some Trinity Forest form to the table, that course also being wide, expansive and designed by Coore and Crenshaw. It's just possible that their return to jeuje up Kapalua brings Trinity Forest into the equation from a correlation perspective, and Duncan was 26th there on debut before a top-five finish last May.
It's asking perhaps too much for him to win, and unlike Herman we're not quite compensated by an outrageous price, so I'll instead back him for the first-round lead. Duncan was fourth and second after the first round in those two Trinity Forest starts, and he shot a career-low 61 in the second round of the RSM when last seen.
Kevin Tway led this last year as a debutant, having won during what we once called the Fall Series, and at 50/1 generally and 66/1 in a place it's worth chancing Duncan to follow suit.
All that speculation leaves us with room for a more serious title contender, and while Rahm and Thomas are the two most likely, it's DUSTIN JOHNSON who stands out at the prices.
Johnson was 5/1 favourite here last year, but now finds himself fourth in the betting after a horrible end to the 2019 season, before he underwent surgery to fix a knee problem which had been affecting his swing and his confidence.
He starts this new year with questions to answer, having long since relinquished his number one ranking to protege Brooks Koepka, and it's hard to be confident about a player who hasn't teed it up in a stroke play tournament since the TOUR Championship way back in August, where he finished last of 30.
However, Johnson signed off the Presidents Cup with a dominant singles victory, and it may prove telling that throughout the event he spoke positively of both his health and his game, telling reporters he was 'really happy' with the way he played.
Johnson has gone well after lengthy absences before, and there's no place better than Kapalua, where he's twice a winner, for him to provide a reminder to the four players above him in the world rankings that he's got plenty still to offer.
In fact, the world rankings should act as motivation - Johnson is now down to fifth, and hasn't been outside the top five since he won the 2016 US Open - so providing he's fit and well, it would be no surprise were this habitual fast starter to bag some more silverware over the opening months of the campaign.
Significantly, his two victories in this event came after disappointing ends to the previous year. In 2017, he'd finished 17th of 30 at East Lake, blown a huge lead in China and then been 14th of 18th in the Hero World Challenge, before taking this title by a whopping eight shots. In 2013, he won it by a ho-hum four, having fallen down to 23rd in the world after a shoddy conclusion to 2012.
That tells us he's used Hawaii as a chance to press reset and fire away at flags, and having been the first player to arrive at the course for a practice round just one day after Christmas, there's more evidence that he means business.
With Rahm having got married during the off-season and likely spent little time practicing, and Schauffele clearly underpriced, there's one player at the front of this market with rock-solid credentials, and one who looks exceptional value. Thomas is the former, Johnson the latter, and the staking plan reflects that belief.
Patrick Cantlay is another obvious candidate, having shown enough on his debut here in 2018. He's a confessed Coore and Crenshaw fan and is set for a huge year, having played in all five matches in the Presidents Cup, delivering three points capped by an impressive display in the singles. The faith shown in him by Tiger Woods will have done wonders for his belief, not that he needed a boost in that department.
He's considered - it's hard to see why he'd be four or five points bigger than his partner Down Under, Schauffele - but there's still not much juice in 12/1 quotes, a comment which also applies to Reed and Gary Woodland at just slightly bigger prices.
As such, Champ is the other one to back if you do want to attack the event with two big-hitting, genuine title candidates. He was 11th on his first visit last year, form of 28-1-MC-23-33-8-27 to start this new wraparound season reads pretty well, and length ought to remain a key asset at a course with wide fairways and where four par-fives are supplemented by a couple of short par-fours the power brigade can go at.
Posted at 1830 GMT on 30/12/19.
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