Golf,

No doubting Thomas – it’s Justin time again!

THE TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS


Best bets
2.5pts each-way Justin Thomas @ 8/1
1pt each-way Xander Schauffele @ 12/1
1pt each-way Marc Leishman @ 33/1
1pt each-way Jordan Spieth @ 20/1
0.5pts each-way Garrick Higgo @ 100/1
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We’re paying FIVE places at the Tournament of Champions!


Farewell to covid-wrecked 2021 and on with the new, teeing off in Hawaii with a star-studded line-up for The Tournament of Champions.

With the ten-hour time lag, it’s going to be the late, late show for TV golfaholics  – a through-the-night double-header with the Kapalua action and, for masochists, the fourth Test as England’s strugglers try to avoid a whitewash Down Under in Sydney.

But let’s start with the good news: there’s going to be a terrific duel between world No. 1 Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa, the young pretender to the throne, there’s USPGA champion Phil Mickelson teeing it up at Kapalua for the first time since 2001 and there’s Justin Thomas bidding to be a triple course winner.

And that’s just for starters! We haven’t mentioned FedEx Cup winner Patrick Cantlay yet or commented on the two biggest missing links, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson.

Rory, never a regular visitor to Hawaii, prefers extra home time with the family while DJ, a double Kapalua champion, failed to qualify.

This limited-field, no-cut tournament is reserved for the calendar-year winners of 2021 and the former world No. 1 surprisingly drew a blank. The only exception to that rule has been finding a spot for Xander Schauffele, a reward for winning Olympic Gold in Tokyo and making the field 39.

Schauffele, as a past course winner, in 2019,  runner-up the following year after losing out in extra-time and stir in a solid fifth place behind new champion Harris English last year and you see how difficult he is to kick out of the frame this weekend.

But someone with an even superior record on the 7596-yard Plantation course, the only par 73 on the PGA Tour roster, will be carrying my main money.

That’s Justin Thomas, champion in 2017 and 2020 and twice third (last year when even 24 under wasn’t enough to get JT into the English-Niemann play-off and in 2019). And all that in the last five years.

With that compelling early-year record, we know that a fresh JT, winner of the Players Championship but lately struggling with the flat stick, has to be the man to beat.

Four of his more recent performances, fourth at the Tour Championship, fifth in the World Challenge, third at Mayakoba and in the Shootout, still read well enough to put him up here with a degree of confidence.

Fitzdares have him at 8/1 favourite, fractionally ahead of the ever-consistent Rahm who was so cruelly robbed on a $1.64m payday when, six clear going into the final round of the Memorial, a positive Covid test forced him to withdraw.

What a tribute to his consistency that he still ended the year as top dog, though only just with Open champion Morikawa yapping at his heels.

Neither Rahm (2-8-10-7) or Morikawa (7-7) have Kapalua form to match Thomas, Rahm’s best finish, runner-up to DJ four years ago, not quite as good as it sounds as he was beaten by eight.

All four winners of the 2021 Majors – Matsuyama, Mickelson, Rahm and Morikawa – are teeing it up in what is surely the strongest field assembled outside the Majors and the Players Championship.

To bump up the size of the field, ten 2021 tournaments having been lost to Covid, members of the 2020 Tour Championship elite were invited to join the party but that concession has not been renewed.

Ironically, last year’s Kapalua winner was one of those invitees, Harris English, who hadn’t won since 2013 and had finished only 18th at East Lake.

When it comes to Kapalua, which boasts the widest fairways, the largest undulating greens and two finishing holes to set the pulses racing, particularly the 626-yard 18th, there’s no doubting Thomas’s credentials. He’s an astonishing 88 under par for his six visits.

Schauffele, fifth last year to English, pipped by Thomas in the 2020 play-off and champion in 2019, is the other horses-for-courses pick. He often looks bombproof which makes the 2021 blank hard to comprehend but striking Olympic Gold in the Tokyo hills was handsome consolation.

FedEx Cup hero Patrick Cantlay (4th in 2020), the PGA Tour’s controversial choice for Player of the Year, must also come into the conversation along with the eccentric Bryson DeChambeau and Jordan Spieth but don’t rule out someone with a hot putter on dauntingly broad greens springing a surprise.

You have to go quite a way back to find a shock Kapalua winner but two real head-scratchers were Jonathan Byrd in 2011 and, three years earlier, Daniel Chopra. Is another upset due?

Marc Leishman did most of the hard work when partnering a struggling Jason Day into the 36-hole lead at last month’s Shootout (they ended up third). The underrated Aussie was fourth to Schauffele in 2019, having run seventh the previous year.

This is a generous course where Spieth can weave his short-game magic. Five years ago when he was carrying all before him, his winning score of 30-under 262 was outrageously good. Spieth also tied for third the following year and took the runner-up berth behind Zach Johnson on his debut in 2014. Off his game for ages until a sparkling revival in 2021 (up from 82nd to 14th on world ranking) not only brought home-state victory in the Texas Open but also top-three placings in Masters and Open.

He’s hard to leave out and for a final throwaway fiver, the 100/1 about Garrick Higgo makes some appeal even if first-timers don’t have a great record here. Still only 22, he earned his place courtesy of victory at Congaree on only his second PGA start. He faded a bit after that but to win four times (three in Europe) by such a young age is exceptional and the only way for him up.

The South African left-hander has a devastating touch on the greens – and on the evidence of two buccaneering victories in the Canaries early in the year, island golf brings the best out of him. This is far, far tougher but his exceptional birdie count is a great tool when scoring is as low as it will be on Maui.

Plenty of rain early in the week will have softened the fairways but there is sunshine later on. With its exposed greens at altitude, the wind needs to blow to make it a serious test but as only a 10-12mph wind is forecast, there should be no excuses.

Next on my shopping list would be Matsuyama, third in 2015, runner-up in 2017 and fourth in 2018, and the impressive Jason Kokrak … but I can’t tip them all!


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