An exclusive field of 34 PGA Tour winners heads to… actually scrap that.
The 2021 Sentry Tournament of Champions is a little different this year. The numbers have been bumped up to 42 and, shock, horror, there are some non-winners taking part.
That’s why you’ll find Tony Finau, Hideki Matsuyama and Scottie Scheffler in the betting even though none managed a victory in 2020. Why them? The other way of qualifying this time was to have made the Tour Championship.
So one way or another, we have an absolutely top-class field with just two of the world’s top 10 missing – Rory McIlroy and Tyrrell Hatton.
This par 73 that features huge greens and wide fairways was toughened up ahead of last year’s renewal. Hence a winning score of -14 following years when the champion won with -23 (Xander Schauffele), -24 (Dustin Johnson), -22 (Justin Thomas) and Jordan Spieth (-30).
The last 10 winners were all American which could mean nothing but I will go with a home player as my first pick: Patrick Reed.
Reed’s name is already on the trophy here after victory in 2015. But he’s twice finished runner-up since then: 2016 and 2020 when losing to Thomas in a three-way play-off. Let’s also note another top six in 2017.
Of course, last year’s near miss came on the toughened up layout so clearly he just likes it here whatever they do.
Reed shouldn’t be too rusty as he’s coming in off a third place at the DP World Tour Championship. He ranked 1st for Strokes Gained: Around The Green in Dubai and those brilliant short-game skills and imagination always serve him well on this course. The greens are huge and there are many lines to take. That really taps into one of Reed’s big strengths.
Creativity is obviously mentioned a lot at Augusta National and it’s probably not a coincidence that five of the last eight winners of this event have a Green Jacket, Reed being one of them.
Tied 10th in The Masters before Dubai, Reed has made the top 15 in all his six starts since the start of September. That run includes another top three in the BMW Championship.
His strong record here shows Reed can perform well after a break. It could just be his liking for this layout but he also confirmed that trait when emerging from golf’s spring/summer lockdown with tied seventh at Colonial.
The World No.11 is 14/1 and I’ll make him my headline bet.
With Augusta National in mind, I’m also drawn towards Cameron Smith.
Despite the course being considered too long for a player of his length, the Aussie was a superb runner-up there a couple of months ago and also fifth in 2018.
Next week he’ll be defending his Sony Open crown at Waialae. Perhaps that suggests we wait until then but a feature of the two early-season Hawaii events is the number of players who have won both.
One the one hand it doesn’t seem unlikely and yet on the other it does: the Plantation Course and Waialae are two completely different tests, the latter a short par 70 with much smaller greens.
Still, there are some common features such as playing well in the wind although it may just be better to note and act on the pattern of golfers winning at both rather than trying to come up with explanatory science.
Smith has played the Plantation once and it didn’t go too well on first glance as he finished in midfield (tied 17th) two years ago.
But he struggled on his debut lap, needing 75 swishes, and his final 54 holes (10-under) matched those of third-placed Brian Harman.
He didn’t play the faster and firmer Plantation Course in 2020 but there’s good reason to think it should suit him.
The main reason for the redesign was, in the words of co-designer Bill Coore, “to restore the playability of the golf course that it used to have.”
Perhaps that referred to 2006 and 2007 when the tournament was won with -8 and -14. Stuart Appleby won the former while Adam Scott was runner-up in the latter.
Aussies actually won five of the seven editions between 2004 and 2010 so it’s been a happy hunting ground for them.
A great short game obviously played a big part in the wins for Stuart Appleby (top three for Scrambling in his each of his three victories) and Geoff Ogilvy (eighth and second for Scrambling). And that’s a skill Smith showed off at Augusta National both this year (third) and in his top five in 2018 (eighth).
Finally, the win at last year’s Sony also showed he could shine after a break. To be fair, Smith had played in the Aussie PGA and Aussie Open along with the Presidents Cup in the December before.
Still, he arrived at Waialae after three weeks off and was able to win so hopefully his break since his big week at Augusta won’t be a negative.
Before that runners-up finish in The Masters, he was fourth at the ZOZO and 11th in the CJ Cup so Smith was one of the form players at the close of 2020.
Take the 27-year-old at 40/1.
As this is an each-way preview, the top five in the betting aren’t really in that realm.
For the record, it’s 6/1 Dustin Johnson, 13/2 Justin Thomas, 15/2 Jon Rahm, 9/1 Bryson DeChambeau and 10/1 Xander Schauffele.
To be honest, the 6/1 on DJ could prove well worth it. He must be on cloud nine after his Masters win and he’s won this event twice.
As for those further down the betting, Carlos Ortiz is in great form after a win at the Houston Open and eighth in the Mayakoba. This will be his first look at the course.
But purely as a price play, I’m going to chance my arm with Kevin Na at a massive 125/.1
Na had been troubled by a neck injury but we saw a real upturn in his form at the end of the year.
He fired a Friday 65 on the way to T28 at the ZOZO, was a slightly surprise tied 13th at Augusta National and then finished joint runner-up in the QBE Shootout with Sean O’Hair.
O’Hair is the World No.725 so it’s not as if Na rode on the back of Dustin Johnson.
Na actually has three top 13 finishes at Augusta, suggesting he can compensate for his lack of length.
Like my other two picks, he can be a wizard around the greens and he showed that by ranking second in Scrambling at The Masters.
He finished nearly plumb last here last year but his only other appearance back in 2012 produced a second-round 64 and a finish of tied 12th.
Let’s also throw in a dash of designer suitability.
Another PGA Tour course designed by the combo of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore is Trinity Forest, host to the Byron Nelson in 2018 and 2019.
Na finished tied sixth in the first year there and ranked sixth in Scrambling.
There’s a lot of good players to try and get past but hopefully a couple of the big guns will not be at it, thus allowing Na to get in the mix.