Fast starter Xander in X-cellent nick


3pts each-way Xander Schauffele @ 12/1
3pts win Jon Rahm @ 6/1
1.5pts each-way Justin Thomas @ 10/1
1pt each-way Sahith Theegala @ 40/1

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Welcome to Golf 2023 and straight away we’re off to Maui, the second largest island after Hawaii itself in America’s 50th State, for the PGA Tour’s traditional Tournament of Champions pipe-opener at Kapalua.

Shorn of a defending champion in Aussie star Cameron Smith by the bar on LIV defectors and missing world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, everyone else who matters is there in a high-class field of 39.

The ToC used to be exclusively for the previous year’s winners but has been broadened to give the 2022 Tour Championship qualifiers a crack at the massively enhanced $15m prize fund.

This is almost double last year’s $8.2m pot with a matching boost from $1.46m to $2.7m for the winner – all because of the PGA Tour’s perceived need to combat the Saudi-backed LIV billions, fighting fire with fire.

The Champions tees off the 17-tournament $340m Elite Series with the next 16 all worth $20m or more. Kapalua has the least because it is a limited field but Sunday’s winner won’t be complaining and the likes of Smith, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Sergio Garcia, all past Kapalua winners, have some soul-searching to do about what they’ve turned their back on.

So who is the new champion going to be? The trick here is to latch on to players who consistently ping the stalls and hit their stride early. That inevitably includes past course winners and those who regularly get in the shake-up.

PGA champion Justin Thomas not only conquered the wide-open Plantation course twice, in 2017 and 2020, he continues to sparkle there, finishing just a shot outside the 2021 playoff and a sound fifth to the Smith phenomenon last year.

The same comment applies to Xander Schauffele, champion in 2019, pipped in a playoff by JT the following year and fifth in 2021. A winner in Scotland and in the States and In tip-top form in the second half of last year, he looks an each-way steal at 12/1.

Favourite Jon Rahm has yet to add this title to his growing collection but his 33 under 12 months ago would have won any of the other ToCs on Maui. Just the Spaniard’s luck to run in such a performance from Smith who shot the lowest total relative to par in PGA Tour history.

The fact that 7596-yard Kapalua is the only par 73 on the circuit slightly flatters Smith’s achievement and, without any appreciable wind last year, it was there for the taking. But this fast-rolling course is not always a pussycat. Giant, exposed greens can be a nightmare when it blows and as Kapalua sits at altitude club selection can be tricky.

Also runner-up on debut in 2018, Rahm has never been outside the top-ten in five visits and arrives on the back of November victory in DP World Tour Championship and a raft of high finishes on both circuits. He has to go close.

Less convincing on course evidence are Masters champion Scottie Scheffler (12th and 13th on two visits), 2022 double winner Tony Finau (19-31-9) and Hero World Challenge hero Viktor Hovland (30th and 31st) but Patrick Cantlay (twice fourth) and Collin Morikawa (5-7-7) clearly have each-way claims.

Kapalua first-timers include US Open hero Matt Fitzpatrick and his victim Will Zalatoris, the American making his first start since quitting the BMW Championship in August with back problems. But it is another debutant, fearless 20-year-old Tom Kim, a spectacular double winner almost immediately on turning pro and a big hit at the Presidents Cup, most will want to see.

If he can beat this tasty lot, the flamboyant South Korean really will have arrived but the bookies have had their card marked and there’s not much juice in his 25/1 quote. Better value could be Sahith Theegala, a big personality with a flashy game who sure knows how to putt his ball.

After finishing runner-up at the RSM Open at Sea Island, he sank the winning 20ft birdie for partner Tom Hoge at the year-ending pairs jolly, the QBE Shootout. That first W on his CV was small beer but be assured there is champagne to come and at 40/1 the lanky Californian is nominated as pick of the outsiders.

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