Tournament of Champions betting preview and tips from Ben Coley

John Rahm
John Rahm

The PGA Tour resumes with the Tournament of Champions, where Xander Schauffele is tipped to get 2019 off to a winning start.

Recommended bets

3pts win Jon Rahm at 17/2

2pts e.w. Xander Schauffele at 25/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5)

1pt e.w. Marc Leishman at 33/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5)

0.5pt e.w. Patton Kizzire at 150/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4)

It's the hottest ticket in town as last year's PGA Tour winners, with three notable exceptions, head to Hawaii for the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Tiger Woods is back in pick-and-choose mode having played wherever and whenever he could throughout 2018, a campaign which ended with that famous victory at East Lake which means he can be as selective as he likes once more.

His absence will be felt strongly, as it always is, but Rory McIlroy's presence is a nice fillip while neither Justin Rose nor Phil Mickelson could ever have been expected to register.

Given the qualification criteria, this field is always strong while also reminding us of those surprise successes which we might otherwise have cast into memory. Ted Potter's Pebble Beach victory, for instance, plus that strange play-off win for Satoshi Kodaira over a previously ice-cold Si-Woo Kim.

With just 34 players in attendance, it's easy to argue that the likes of Potter and Kodaira are overpriced at a whopping 300/1, particularly the latter given that he also signed off 2018 by winning a three-man play-off in his native Japan.

Satoshi Kodaira with the RBC Heritage trophy
Satoshi Kodaira with the RBC Heritage trophy

Then again, these no-cut, low-scoring events lend themselves to someone at the very top of the sport winning, often with a degree of comfort, and that was precisely what happened last January when Dustin Johnson romped to an eight-shot victory over Jon Rahm.

With eight players priced between 5/1 and 18/1, simply forecasting a quality champion isn't enough and it might just pay to apply a couple of straightforward filters here, at a golf course we know plenty about and in an event which is well-established.

Firstly, debutants don't have an especially good record, which is against McIlroy. Daniel Chopra sprang a massive surprise on his first visit but otherwise it's rare for someone to rock up here, often in their first full year as a PGA Tour winner, and win the title.

Indeed Justin Thomas's improvement from a debut 21st to a second-time first is not without precedent; it's customary for players of varying skill-sets to improve leaps and bounds for a look around. Two years before Thomas won, Patrick Reed improved to a similar degree on a debut 16th to beat Jimmy Walker in a play-off.

Further back, Stuart Appleby was 16th and 15th before rattling off a hat-trick here, Geoff Ogilvy 13th and 19th before winning twice, while DJ's record showed finishes of 11th, 16th and ninth before he won the first of what's now two titles at the Plantation Course.

Experience, then, counts for plenty but there are two stronger pointers: form towards the end of the previous campaign and, perhaps more so than ever, the leaderboard at the Hero World Challenge in December.

That limited-but-elite-field event now takes place in the Bahamas, at a coastal golf course with wide open spaces off the tee, one which offers birdie opportunities in abundance and allows the modern golfer to reach for driver at least a dozen times per round. In other words, at a course with obvious similarities to this one.

When Rickie Fowler won the Hero in 2017, he returned to action finishing fourth here, and Hideki Matsuyama was fifth in both events. Jordan Spieth went 3-9 across that same run, and his victory here in 2016 had been preceded by fourth place in the Bahamas.

Reed was runner-up in both events in 2015 and 2016, while in 2016 and 2017 it was Matsuyama who almost completed the double, following a win in the Hero with second place here. This is exactly what you'd expect, but it's nevertheless comforting as a punter to know that Christmas tends not to throw too much of a spanner in the works.

In terms of form elsewhere, Johnson had somehow conspired to blow the WGC-HSBC Champions on his penultimate start of 2017, with runner-up Rahm having signed off his year with victory in the DP World Tour Championship and Brian Harman, in third, having strung together a trio of top-10 finishes.

2017 winner Thomas had gone 6-8-1-23-4 at the end of 2016, the man he got the better of, Matsuyama, had won four of his final six starts, while in a share of third were Jordan Spieth and Pat Perez, both champions towards the end of the previous year.

I could go on - Zach Johnson did the Hero/ToC double before the former event moved away from California - but in the spirit of brevity I will conclude that Jon Rahm has an outstanding chance to do the very same thing.

The Spaniard is the only player from the Hero World Challenge top-five to be teeing it up this week and that immediately puts him towards the top of the shortlist, with the manner of his success such that there are high hopes he'll challenge for major honours this year.

To have been second on his debut at the Plantation Course, where side-hill lies and changing winds are two of the major challenges, suggests that the course is absolutely to his liking and so it should be, given his power and creativity.

"I feel like I've been more comfortable each time," he said last year, referring to each round he played on his debut. "The first few days I was still a little hesitant because it's hard to picture some of the lines, because you can't see the ball to trust the line to some places. It's just hard. But the more I played the more comfortable I got and definitely a round like yesterday helped that a lot."

Rahm was in a class of his own when last seen, leading the field in birdies and bogey avoidance, ranking fourth in greens and first in scrambling, with the latter a particularly valuable pointer given that it's been key to success here many times before.

Jordan Spieth was second here on his debut before storming to an eight-shot win next time and Rahm, a winner in January in both his first two years as a touring professional, is perfectly placed to do something similar.

A third victory for Johnson wouldn't surprise anyone, but despite finishing nicely for a top-10 finish when last seen it's a little while - longer than you'd like for a 5/1 shot - since we saw him at his prodigious best.

By contrast, Xander Schauffele ended 2018 with a real flourish and he's fancied to pick up where he left off in an event he'd love to win.

Schauffele's father used to be the assistant professional here at Kapalua, for the two years the family lived in Hawaii, and they enjoyed their first trip back last January where they received a familiar welcome.

"Hawaii kind of feels like home just because of him," said Schauffele, and while unable to perform as he'd have liked, don't forget he'd just switched from Taylor Made to Callaway, a hard change for him to make having been playing the former since he took up the game.

Not only did Schauffele change clubs but he also switched ball and his form in the early months of the year strongly suggests that he struggled with the transition, despite staying on-brand in interviews and telling reporters that it'd been seamless.

Once Schauffele got comfortable, he quickly resumed his sharp rise through the ranks, first contending in a couple more majors before winning the WGC-HSBC Champions with an ice-cold assassination of a luckless Tony Finau.

Xander Schauffele celebrates with the trophy
Xander Schauffele celebrates with the HSBC Champions trophy

That was one of four top-10 finishes in his final eight events last year, the last coming at the Hero where he stayed on from a slow start, with just one player behind him after round one but only seven in front come the conclusion.

Schauffele is fast becoming a prolific, world-class player and with all the incentive in the world to be ready to go from the outset, he looks among the chief threats to the big names at the head of the market.

Charles Howell is tempting, fitting as he does the criteria of ending last year in good form and boasting such an incredible record in Hawaii.

Yes, a scoring average of 67.79 is built primarily on his performances in the Sony Open rather than two visits here, but he did shoot 74-70-68-67 last time he qualified for the event while rounds of 66 and 67 on debut further confirm that he's well suited to the challenge.

Howell has always been an outstanding player in the wind, he hits it a long way and scrambles well, while it's interesting that after both his first and second PGA Tour wins he did hold onto his form and threaten to go in again.

Still, having waited 11 years for win number three, it's a little fanciful to imagine him seeing off this field and he's just about the right sort of price at 66/1.

More interesting is Patton Kizzire, who had started to turn a corner before winning the QBE Classic alongside Harman shortly before Christmas.

You might think that event is no more than a cash-grab exhibition and that's basically true, but when Jason Dufner and Brandt Snedeker won it a couple of years ago, they returned to the PGA Tour in January and both picked up silverware.

There's contradictory evidence to its value, too, but for a player like Kizzire who spent much of the year searching for confidence, it's far from impossible that winning in brave fashion will preempt a fast start to 2019.

What's more, his two individual titles came by the sea, including across on the other island in the Sony Open, and he played well for an encouraging 15th on his debut here.

Finally, I want to have Marc Leishman on-side after a seriously eye-catching display here last January.

The Australian arrived on the back of the best year of his career and played beautifully for three rounds, leading after the first and second before a nightmare Saturday followed by a Sunday rally for seventh.

Twelve months on and he's in similar form, winning the CIMB Classic stylishly and threatening to double up in the Australian PGA Championship, before a disappointing back-nine allowed Cameron Smith to defend his title.

It would have been Leishman's first win on home soil and failure therefore will have stung, which should ensure that he means business here in Hawaii in a bid to put it all behind him.

His previous appearance in this event was a complete write-off - he had food poisoning and the start was delayed until the tournament was reduced to 54 holes - and my instinct is that it's an ideal course for a player who loves to compete in a steady breeze.

It's also interesting that three of Leishman's five high-profile wins (CIMB, BMW Championship, Nedbank) have been in no-cut events and he looks good value at 33/1.

Posted at 1100 GMT on 31/12/18.

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