Sentry Tournament of Champions: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Justin Thomas
His recent track record at Kapalua makes Justin Thomas a great fantasy pick in this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions. Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Mull is a former caddie who spent several years walking alongside the world’s best players inside the ropes on the PGA Tour. Throughout the 2019-20 season, he will be filing a weekly fantasy golf picks piece — as well as a gambling picks piece — applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.

Greetings, fantasy players.

Welcome to the 2020s and the first PGA Tour tournament of the decade, the Sentry Tournament of Champions, coming live in prime time in brilliant high definition from the gorgeous shores of Maui.

The familiar Plantation Course at Kapalua is again the site for the 34 tournament winners who opted to compete this week for the $6.7 million purse. A slew of big names, including Tiger Woods, opted not to participate in what will be the second-smallest field of the season, trailing only the season finale 30-man Tour Championship.

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In theory, the small field and course familiarity should allow us to ease into this segment of the 2019-20 season and start with thrilling success as the favorites appear in clear view.

But there’s a twist. Isn’t there always a twist?

The Plantation Course, while still offering spectacular views from high atop the Maui shore (whales!), underwent a $12 million “revitalization” in the last year. Original architects, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, were responsible for returning the 7,596-yard, par-73 course to its roots. Specifically, they repositioned bunkers, added new tees — shortening some holes and lengthening others — and re-grassed the fairways with Celebration Bermudagrass, which should generate firm, fast conditions.

Coore and Crenshaw also redesigned the greens, softening slopes to create more hole locations which should place a greater premium on iron play. Combined with trade winds forecast to gust in excess of 30 mph Friday-Sunday, the pros may have to work harder to uncover the birdies and eagles that have been abundant in recent years. The winning score has been 22-24 under the last three years — Xander Schauffele tied the old course record with a final-round 62 en route to victory last year — and Jordan Spieth torched the Plantation with a 30-under total in 2016.

Johnson, an early arrival to Kapalua, described the course as much more difficult than in previous years, saying he had to hit as much as a 6-iron into two par 4s that were typically no more than a wedge. If one of golf’s most powerful players is selecting from the mid-iron compartment of his bag on occasion, the average hitters will be fumbling around with the hybrids and long irons more than they might like.

In full-field events, we’ll rank the players, 1-thru-25. This week, we’re focusing on the top 15.

Golfer power rankings

1. Justin Thomas – The 2017 Sentry TOC winner also finished third last season. He was second on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: approach the green in ‘18-19.

2. Jon Rahm – The hottest player in the world, newly married, has a second and eighth in his two appearances at Kapalua.

3. Xander Schauffele – Blistered the Plantation Course to win a year ago and is solid across the board, finishing 11th last season in strokes gained: tee-to-green.

4. Dustin Johnson – Yes, he’s struggled of late but nobody has earned more money at Kapalua, where he won in 2013 and 2018. His early arrival is a good sign he’s serious about a resurgence.

5. Rickie Fowler – Another newlywed, he has three top-6 finishes and looked sharp at the Presidents Cup considering how little he’d played.

6. Patrick Cantlay – He finished 10th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: approach the green last season and finished runner-up at the Shriners in October.

7. Paul Casey – Tied for 16th here last season but worthy of consideration on any track that demands precise iron shots – finished top-10 in three main strokes gained ball-striking stats last season.

8. Gary Woodland – Struggled somewhat following his U.S. Open victory in June but shot four rounds of 68 or better at the Plantation to finish second a year ago.

9. Patrick Reed – Won in 2015, finished runner-up in 2016, struggled last year. Bit of a wildcard but if he putts at all like he did on the final day at Royal Melbourne, he’ll be in the mix.

10. Joaquin Niemann – He’s gonna be a star and his ball-striking is among the Tour’s best – eighth in the FedEx Cup standings with a win at the Greenbrier.

11. Matt Kuchar – Can he continue the amazing on course run he’s enjoyed for the last 16 months? Through six rounds in ‘19-20, he leads the Tour in proximity to the hole.

12. Collin Morikawa – If it’s a ball-striking contest, he’s always a favorite. He’s 12th in strokes gained: approach the green this season.

13. Corey Conners – Top-10 in strokes gained: approach each of the last two seasons, the first-timer should find Kapalua suits him.

14. Ryan Palmer – A fantastic iron player (10th in strokes gained: approach) the Texan won’t mind the windy conditions one bit. First appearance since 2011 (T-15).

 15. Brendon Todd – We’d be unwise to overlook the FedEx Cup leader, who won twice and added another top-5 in the fall.

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