Happy New Year to you all! Hope the holiday period was kind and you’ve entered 2023 with vigour much like the 39-strong field suited up for the return of the PGA Tour at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui this week.
As will be more the norm throughout this year, the field to take on the Plantation Course at Kapalua on the island of Maui in Hawaii is stacked with top talent as 17 of the top 20 in the world have made their way to compete.
As the first designated event of the new year the total purse has risen significantly from $8.2million to $15million with 550 FedExCup points also on deck for the winner. The new eligibility rules are also in play which sees members who are either winners on Tour from the last 12 months, or those who reached last season’s Tour Championship eligible to play.
Only world No.1 Rory McIlroy is missing from those entitled to take their place in the 25th anniversary at Kapalua, so we have plenty of data to track over those years.
First and foremost, there is no time for a holiday mood on the par-73 7,596-yard course as scoring is always paramount. Winning scores since 2015 have been 21-under or better save for the 2020 event where high winds affected play at 14-under prevailed. A year ago, Cameron Smith shot a record 34-under to win.
Given this we will look into guys who know how to go low and also preview scoring average at Kapalua for those in the field. While the latter will ignore the first timers in the field it must be pointed out the only debutants to win at Kapalua (save the opening year) were Sergio Garcia in 2002 and Daniel Chopra in 2008.
Given seven of the last eight winners at Kapalua were ranked inside the top seven in Strokes Gained: Approach we can’t leave this out in our predictive thinking. Over the last three years, since the latest Coore and Crenshaw renovation, the majority of approach shots have come from 150-175 yards so we will have a dive into that distance.
The last two winners led the field in Strokes Gained: Putting but prior to that you have to go back to Jordan Spieth winning in 2016 for another winner leading this stat. So perhaps we will place more focus on Birdie or Better Percentage on the greens because the reality is with the widest fairways on Tour and some big greens players must take their chances.
Here is a look at the players in this field currently ranking inside the top 10 on TOUR in these key stats.
Strokes Gained: Approach
1 – Billy Horschel +1.658
3 – Tom Hoge +1.366
4 – Tony Finau +1.327
5 – Tom Kim +1.278
6 – Cameron Young +1.275
Note: Last season Will Zalatoris (1), Russell Henley (2), Collin Morikawa (3), Scottie Scheffler (4), Hideki Matsuyama (6), Xander Schauffele (7), and Justin Thomas (8) all ranked inside the top 10 of this stat.
Approach from 150-175 yards Avg RTP
2 – Cameron Young -.444
3 – Tom Kim -.440
4 – Tony Finau -.333
10 – Patrick Cantlay -.250
Note: Last season Justin Thomas (1), Will Zalatoris (5), Hideki Matsuyama (6), Scottie Scheffler (7), Xander Schauffele (7), Tony Finau (10) and Jon Rahm (10) all ranked inside the top 10 of this stat.
Birdie or Better Percentage
1 – Patrick Cantlay 48.28%
4 – Tony Finau 41.89%
8 – Max Homa 39.33%
Note: Last season Justin Thomas (2), Cameron Young (3), Patrick Cantlay (4), Viktor Hovland (5), Scottie Scheffler (8) and Sam Burns (9) all ranked inside the top 10 of this stat.
Top Scoring Average at Kapalua
(minimum 8 rounds played; entered this week)
|Sungjae Im (2)||67.38|
|Jordan Spieth (5)||68.30|
|Jon Rahm (5)||68.50|
|Collin Morikawa (3)||68.50|
|Justin Thomas (7)||68.79|
|Xander Schauffele (5)||68.80|
|Patrick Cantlay (4)||69.06|
|Hideki Matsuyama (5)||69.10|
|Tony Finau (3)||69.33|
|Brian Harman (2)||69.63|
Rahm has been no worse than 10th in five attempts at Kapalua including runner up results in in 2018 and 2022. Won twice on the DP World Tour in last four starts worldwide.
Scheffler was T13 in 2021 in lone previous attempt. Has four wins since and claimed two top 10s in the fall before a runner up at the recent Hero World Challenge.
Schauffele is a former winner in 2019 and finished P2-T5-T12 since. Coming off three wins last season.
Cantlay has four top 15s in his four appearances including a pair of fourths in 2020 and 2022.
Thomas is a two-time winner at Kapalua in 2017 and 2020… so even the pattern of every three years brings enticement! He’s also had two thirds and a T5 here in the past and his name pops up considerably in all the key stats.
Another stat that comes to mind is the fact no player has more rounds of 63 or lower than Thomas since 2015 and its almost a given winners at Kapalua need to hang up at least one 65 or better. Of the guys at the top of the board he leads the way in that metric.
Career Rounds of 65 or better on TOUR (Stroke play official events)
Justin Thomas – 66
Xander Schauffele – 38
Jon Rahm – 37
Patrick Cantlay – 36
Scottie Scheffler – 29
Tom Kim, the International Team sensation from the Presidents Cup will need to overcome the first timer hoodoo but his approach game is out of this world when at its peak.
“I feel a little bit more comfortable than I did before on the PGA Tour… and obviously winning big events is great, but it's just keeping that same mindset as I've had my whole life and just kind of keep getting better every day,” Kim said of his goals in Maui.
“All those big events you win, it's just kind of ticking off the boxes, but the biggest thing for me is just to be mentally better and be physically stronger and just get better at every aspect of the game every day, I feel like the goals just kind of happen.”
Will Zalatoris is the mystery. If not for the fact he is returning after a long injury hiatus after two herniated discs in his back robbed him of his spot in the Tour Championship right after his breakthrough win at the FedEx St. Jude Championship, the Texan would normally garner great attention.
Wisdom says wait and see on Zalatoris despite his key stat ranks, especially when you hear about some changes he’s had to make since being cleared to practise on December 1.
After examination of the pressures of his swing, it was concluded a motor pattern was the root cause of the strain on his back. Zalatoris tends to push off his right side later than most; with his level of side bend, his right hip is high with his spine tilted back.
“As Dr. Rose said, duh, no wonder I had a back issue,” Zalatoris quipped from Maui before explaining an adjustment to his setup should reduce strain on his back.
“Be a little more centred, as opposed to having ball forward with more spine tilt at address,” Zalatoris explained. “I’m trying to get more centred over it and work more around my right side, so more a turn as opposed to a lateral shift. When my right hip gets high and the spine tilts back, you’re all of a sudden creating all that stress on your back.”
While we usually look to the triple figures in longshots, in this smaller field we have to be a bit more discerning.
The names sparking up in the key stats above include Russell Henley 40/1, Brian Harman 45/1, Billy Horschel 55/1 and Tom Hoge . Look for value among this quartet, perhaps in match ups or top 10 markets.