While the season officially began back in October, for most golf fans this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions kicks off the true start of the PGA Tour schedule. If you’re unfortunate enough to be a golf junkie who chooses to build your igloo in the Northeast, you’re in for a treat as the breathtaking views and greenery of The Plantation Course in Maui pops on your television screen.
With an elite field of only 34 golfers, rounding out your DraftKings lineup or choosing who to lay your bets on will be a difficult task. Here’s a breakdown of everything a bettor needs just in case their NFL Wild Card bets this weekend goes straight to hell:
As mentioned previously, the field is stacked with some of the best golfers in the world. It’s comprised entirely of PGA Tour winners during 2018, and it’ll include the likes of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, and Francesco Molinari. It’ll also feature exciting and young up-and-comers like Cameron Champ, Xander Schauffele and Aaron Wise, who are all elite drivers and could feast on this wide open track (more on that in a bit).
The only 2018 winners who are skipping the event are Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods (RIP Golf Channel Ratings). Still, despite these omissions, there will be plenty of star power on the leaderboard to make this tournament a mandatory viewing experience this weekend. And with final round coverage beginning on the east coast shortly after the completion of the Sunday NFL Wild Card game, it’s a perfect cap to the weekend for a sports fan and a gambler.
The Golf Course
The Plantation Course at Kapalua 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 Honokahua Bay and Molokai Island to its wide fairways, the course both fun and challenging to play because of the elevation changes and the possibility the prevailing ENE winds wreck havoc on the golf course:
The round kicks off on the downhill 520 yard Par 4 running towards the bay. For a right-handed golfer, a draw off the tee should allow the winds to assist the golf ball towards the slope about 312 yards away and funnel the ball down the hill. Those who successfully navigate the ball down the slope will set up the perfect angle to a left-to-right sloped green with a mid-iron. The hole sets up a little better for longer hitters, as those who keep their tee shot on top of the ridge face an awkward approach angle from a much longer distance that requires a carry over a front right green-side bunker and a native area hazard:
After taking on the Par 3 2nd, the golfers start the climb up the hill from the 3rd to the 5th hole, where the total elevation change over this stretch is about 250 feet. If the wind isn’t up, these holes shouldn’t pose too big of a problem. But if it is, then tricky crosswinds will make the golfers uncomfortable, especially on the uphill approach shots. Once at the top of the hill, holes 6 through 8 take the golfer all the way back down the hill towards the bay and then wraps up the Front Nine uphill to the clubhouse.
The first half of the Back Nine loops around in a counterclockwise fashion at the bottom of the golf course, and features the dueling banjos of the 12th and 13th holes:
The golfers will have the wind at their backs at the downhill 420 yard Par 4 12th, licking their chops as they attack a 70-yard wide fairway with the driver. This hole routinely yields the longest drives of the year on the PGA Tour, as even the shorter hitters have little trouble sending their tee shot 350 yards down the slope. As long as they avoid the centerline bunker short of the green, the 12th is a very good opportunity to card a birdie.
Their feelings as world-beaters are short-lived as they step onto the tee at the uphill 407 yard 13th. The aiding wind from the 12th is now punching them right in the mouth, and if the winds are howling even the longest hitters will have trouble clearing the fairway bunker 230 yards out. Anyone who scrapes out a par at this hole will count their blessings.
After another three-hole stretch up the hill, the round concludes from the highest point of the golf course at the Par 4 549 yard 17th down to the 663 yard Par 5 18th. Despite their behemoth yardages, the holes play much shorter thanks to a helping wind and a 300-foot drop in elevation from the 17th tee to the 18th green. Both are quite reachable in two to set up closing birdie opportunities.
Despite some of the challenges posed at the golf course, this tournament is routinely a birdie-fest. The tournament record was set by Ernie Els in 2003 when he shot a ridiculously low 31 under par. Last year Dustin Johnson carded -24 and cruised to an 8 shot victory over Jon Rahm, highlighted by what Brandel Chamblee called the “greatest shot in the history of golf” at the 12th hole:
(I know a completely ridiculous take. I’d troll him constantly about it but he’s a little trigger-happy with the block button).
As far as golfers to target for DraftKings, matchup props, etc., it’ll take a more feel-based approach as opposed to relying on current form or data. Every golfer in the field will tee it up competitively for the first time in at least a month, and most fall-series events do not keep track of shot-link data. Therefore the approach will be to try and match golfers based on the strengths of their games to the Plantation Course. It’s a tricky proposition and a bettor must accept that some choices may blow up in their faces. For gambling purposes, this is one of the trickier tournaments to forecast.
Low scores might be neutered a bit thanks to strong winds in the forecast for the first three rounds. Even so, the course should yield its fair share of birdies, especially on Sunday when winds are expected to lay down. Efficient ball-striking tee-to-green, with a slight emphasis on longer hitters, should be the key to success for those who find themselves in contention. In addition, the top of the leaderboard of this tournament tends to feature golfers who are more adept at longer approach shots with mid and long irons.
Here’s who I’m targeting this weekend (with DraftKings values and odds courtesy of mybookie.ag):
- Dustin Johnson – 5/1, $11,000
- Jon Rahm – 7/1, $9,800
- Justin Thomas – 7.5/1, $10,500
- Brooks Koepka – 8/1, $10,200
- Rory McIlroy – 9/1, $9,600
All four of these golfers are premier drivers of the golf ball and have more than enough firepower to bring the Plantation Course to its knees. I wouldn’t fault anyone from building around anyone from this group. However, I’ve found that building around two of three of Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, and Brooks Koepka can lead to a very well rounded and talented lineup. All three golfers are capable of going supernova on any track they face and should feast on the generously wide fairways the Plantation Course offers.
If I had to identify a player to fade here, it’s Rory McIlroy. Despite a win at Bay Hill and two Top 10 performances at majors, 2018 was statistically a struggle for him. Part of his struggles might have been his switch from the Taylor Made M2 to the M3, where his 50 round Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green moving average dipped from 1.15 to begin 2018 to 0.83 by the Tour Championship. And though he did see improvements with his irons during the summer months, his performance in this area is still well short of elite, especially with his wedges. Until he shows concrete evidence of improvement in these areas, I’d look to short him in matchup props against the other favorites this weekend.
Xander Schauffele – 22/1, $8,300
Schauffele has never been the prettiest golfer on the stat sheet because he’s fairly inconsistent. When he’s at his worst, he’s missing cuts badly. But when he’s firing on all cylinders he can be a contender on any golf course and against the toughest of fields. He’s tended to rise to the occasion in strong fields, as shown with his strong 2018 performances at the Players Championship, the Open Championship, and the WGC-HSBC Champions, where he picked up win at Sheshan International in October. And given the strength of his game is with his driver, I like him to shine once again at Kapalua.
In DraftKings, he should get overlooked for more popular options around his price-point like Bryson DeChambeau and Francesco Molinari. And while Gary Woodland matches Xander with his proficiency with the driver, Xander is a little better long iron player than Woodland. That should help carry him in a matchup prop over Woodland at +110.
Billy Horschel – 50/1, $7,000
Horschel rediscovered his reputation as one of the best ball-strikers on the PGA Tour during the FedEx Cup, recording Top 5 finishes in three of four playoff events. During that run he averaged 1.60 Strokes Gained Tee-To-Green and showed improvements off the tee, an area he had been struggling with when he was slumping. He cooled off a bit during the fall series but still managed a T21 at Mayakoba and a T11 at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Beijing. He could well outpace his cheap DraftKings price to be a very useful asset this weekend.
Kevin Tway – 140/1, $6,500
If the approach of building around two studs is taken, Kevin Tway serves as a great cheap option to round out a DraftKings lineup. Tway broke through at the Safeway Open in October for his first PGA Tour win and is very solid with both his driving and long approaches during his young career. In addition to the low DraftKings price, I love him matched up against Troy Merritt at -125. While Merritt has played better of late, if it weren’t for his opposite field win at the Barbasol Championship he might be on the Web.com tour right now. Tway is on the ups of his career and should best Merritt in this prop at Kapalua.
Sentry Tournament of Champions DraftKing Lineup:
- Justin Thomas – $10,500
- Jon Rahm – $9,800
- Xander Schauffele – $8,300
- Aaron Wise – $7,500
- Billy Horschel – $7,000
- Kevin Tway – $6,500