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Sentry Tournament of Champions Picks

For golfers who choose to build their igloo in northern locales like I have, January can be a dark, cold time. The options are fairly limited to get in your fix. You could fork over $60/hour to play “Pebble Beach” at your local country club’s simulator, or forego your kid’s first year of college and buy a simulator of your own. You could head to your indoor driving range and pipe bombs into the back wall 85 yards away, only to realize in the Spring that the power fade you thought you perfected is actually a two fairway away slice. Or you could do what my dad and I did when I was a kid – strap on some snow-pants, sneak onto your local municipal and play in the snow with some orange colored balls.

But while myself and the rest of the United States freeze as we turn the calendar to 2018, this Thursday we’re reminded that somewhere on planet earth golf utopia does thrive…

Hawaii plays host to the unofficial start of the 2018 PGA Tour Season with the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Sure there’s the Fall Series, but this event begins 36 consecutive weeks of professional golf in the United States on the airwaves. For golf fans, the Tournament of Champions marks the start of the long run towards crowning major champions, seeing new stars emerge, and watching captivating and dramatic golf tournaments on Sunday afternoons.

There are not many venues more suitable to kickoff the “real” PGA Tour Season than the Plantation Course at Kapalua, an absolute gem and a course that’s certainly on my bucket list. The Plantation Course was designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in 1991 and has played host to the Tournament of Champions since 1999. Pros and amateurs alike rave about the course. From its breathtaking views overlooking Kapalua Bay and Molokai to its wide fairways, not only is the course both fun and challenging to play, Golf Channel does a tremendous job with the coverage. Primetime golf on a cold winter evening is absolute bliss. So do yourself a favor – after winning a whole bunch of cash on the NFL Wild Card Weekend thanks to Sean and Ryan’s locks, flip over to the Golf Channel and watch the drama unfold on Sunday evening. Even if it’s a runaway, unofficial Hawaiian Tour Guide/Golf Channel Analyst Mark Rolfing will tell you all about the best nightspots and the whale migration and mating patterns around the island – and if that’s not a ringing endorsement on tuning in, I don’t know what is.

One of the only defenses the Plantation Course has is the prevailing ENE winds, and this week is no exception. Looking at the forecast, the winds should be between 15-25 MPH, and with a certain tee to green directions, it should make for some wild holes back to back. Case in point – golfers will have the winds at their back for a downhill 420 yard Par 4 12th, a hole that some could easily drive the green. After that, they’ll face the uphill 407 yard 13th with that same fierce wind directly in their face (no wonder they call it the longest Par 4 in the world).

Even with the strong winds, the tournament typically produces very low scores. Ernie Els set the 72 hole scoring record in 2003 by shooting a ridiculous -31, and looking back in recent history you’ll see a wide variety of different types of golfers who’ve won. The tournament has been won by the likes of Steve Stricker and Zach Johnson, who dinked and dunked their way to the title thanks to tremendous iron play and hot putting. On the opposite end of the spectrum, bombers like Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson have brought the course to its knees. And then you have Jordan Spieth, arguably golf’s best all-around player, who took home the title in 2015.

That’s what makes handicapping the tournament a challenge – there’s no clear-cut recipe or blueprint for finding success at Kapalua. It’s a testament to Crenshaw and Coore that, like Augusta, golfers of all types can find low numbers on the course. And with a limited but super deep field, you’ll be left with some tough choices on putting down your win bets and filling out your DraftKings lineup.

Here’s who I like this week (with win bet and DraftKings value in parenthesis):

The Favorites:

  • Jordan Spieth (4.75/1, $10,900)
  • Dustin Johnson (5/1, $10,300)
  • Justin Thomas (5.75/1, $11,100)
  • Rickie Fowler (6/1, $10,500)

I won’t argue if anyone puts down a big Win Bet on one of these four, or builds around them as the anchor of their DraftKings lineup. Spieth, Johnson and Thomas are all former winners of the event, and Fowler has posted a 5th and T6 in his two appearances at Kapalua. Statistically speaking, all four have the tee to green game to win, so let’s play a quick game of elimination:

Due to the magic powers of the internet and a few patron saints with a lot of time on their hands, there exists Strokes Gained in Wind statistics that should come in handy given the blustery conditions this weekend. While Fowler, DJ and Spieth all rank highly in windy conditions since 2014, Justin Thomas is a bit of an underachiever. Yes, he’s the defending champion, but I’ll sack up and say he doesn’t repeat in 2018.

Dustin Johnson just hasn’t been on point since dominating the first half of 2017. Maybe it was the birth of his second child in June that caused a bit of a distraction off the course, or maybe it was getting pushed down the steps by Jimmy Walker tripping and falling on the eve of the Masters that derailed the momentum. But he’s been fairly pedestrian in the Fall following his win at The Northern Trust, including blowing a 54 hole lead in Shanghai to Justin Rose at the WGC. I’m just not vibin’ with the DJ of late, so cross him off my list too.

So that leaves Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth. Both statistically and based on the eyeball test, Jordan Spieth should be your man here. Between the elevation changes, the wind and the wide fairways, distance off the tee isn’t the key this week. It’ll be tee shot placement for better angles to the green and solid iron play, and that happens to be Spieth’s bread and butter. But if you need a reason to fade Spieth, he just got engaged to his longtime girlfriend. As myself and the recently engaged Sean Green, co-owner of the Sports Gambling Podcast, can probably attest to, there’s a lot of distractions right after you pop the question. Between the endless parade of family and friends asking you about the engagement, to the initial panic of the mountain of things you have to accomplish (before you and your fiance realize you have at least 6 months to start pulling everything together), golf might not exactly be at the top of Spieth’s mind this weekend.

So I’ll put my blue chip money on Rickie Fowler, who won at the Hero World Challenge a month ago and is one of the best tee to green ball strikers on tour. I think Fowler is set up for big things in 2018, and a win this weekend is the start of it. He’ll be the anchor on my DraftKings lineup this weekend.

Other Contenders:

Patrick Cantlay (18/1, $8,600)

About two months ago I railed against the sportsbooks for putting the Patrick Cantlay odds way too high at the WGC HSBC Champions, complaining that he needed to win a tournament before getting odds similar to those of Jon Rahm, Justin Rose and other of the sport’s elites. Well sure enough, Cantlay went out and won in a playoff over Alex Cejka and Whee Kim at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas for his first career win. Cantlay had a great Fall Series, is a tremendous ball striker and I expect him to be near the top of the leaderboard all weekend.

(Similarly valued golfers I like Cantlay better than – Hideki Matsuyama, Marc Leishman, Xander Schauffele, Daniel Berger)

Brian Harman (38/1, $8,700) and Brendan Steele (50/1, $7,400)

Let’s see – Kapalua is a long golf course with wide fairways and windy conditions where golfers both long and short off the tee can find low numbers…sounds a lot like 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, right?

Enter short hitting Brian Harman and long hitting Brendan Steele. Each of these guys played well at Erin Hills and I think that translates over to Kapalua this weekend. Both also rank inside the Top 20 in strokes gained tee to green early on in the 2018 season, and each have also played very good golf during the Fall Series. Admittedly, Harman’s DraftKings value is a bit of a joke and he probably should be around where Steele is. But I like both of these guys, particularly if you can get them in favorable tournament matchup plays.

(Similarly valued golfers I like Steele and Harman better than – Russell Henley, Cameron Smith, Kevin Chappell)

Kyle Stanley (65/1, $6,800)

Stanley has been a staple of mine to include in tournament matchup props and DraftKings Lineups since the summer and I’m going to keep riding him here. Stanley had a very solid Fall Series including a T5 at the WGC HSBC Champions in November. He’s widely regarded as one of the best ball strikers on tour, and at Kapalua the pros will need to be on point with their irons from 200 yards and in. I love Stanley as a cheap back-end option as you round out your DraftKings Lineup this week.

(Similarly valued golfers I like Stanley better than – Bryson DeChambeau, Jason Dufner, Si Woo Kim, Hudson Swafford)

Sample DraftKings Lineup:

  • Rickie Fowler – $10,500
  • Brian Harman – $8,700
  • Patrick Cantlay – $8,600
  • Pat Perez – $8,000
  • Brendan Steele – $7,400
  • Kyle Stanley – $6,800

Golf analyst for SportsGamblingPodcast.com, providing insight on news and betting tips for the PGA Tour, as well as commentary and banter on the World of Sports. Follow him on Twitter @SteveSchirmer

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