Sentry Tournament of Champions 2021: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Xander Schauffele’s last two starts at the Sentry Tournament of Champions have resulted in a win and a T2, respectively. Credit: Kelvin Kuo-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 2020-21 season, he will be filing a weekly fantasy golf picks piece applying the expert knowledge he’s acquired over the years by following the players and courses on Tour so closely.

Welcome back, hope everyone’s New Year is off to a splendid start.

The PGA Tour reconvenes in Kapalua at the familiar Plantation Course for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, featuring a 42-man field expanded to include all 2020 Tour Championship qualifiers.

The Plantation, home to the most accommodating fairways and scenic views on the Tour schedule, measures 7,596 yards and plays to the rare par 73. There are three par 3s and four par 5s, including the 18th hole, a frequent site of regulation and sudden-death drama. Last year, Justin Thomas outlasted past TOC champs Patrick Reed and Xander Schauffele to claim the title.

This is the second year since architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw redesigned Plantation, flattening the greens to create more hole locations. Last year howling winds in excess of 30 mph kept the scoring in check; the trio at the top tied at 14 under. With the forecast calling for the typical 10-20 mph this week and the greens likely a shade smoother, if not softer, in their second year expect the winning scores to be in the low-to-mid 20s.

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So what has been required to succeed at the Plantation Course in the past? Accurate iron shots and 3-putt avoidance. The Plantation greens are massive, producing an average proximity of 35.5 feet on greens in regulation compared to 28.6 feet at the average Tour event. Historically, the field registers 0.80 3-putts per round compared to 0.556 the rest of the year.

Cashing in on the par 5s is also imperative. Each offers an excellent birdie, if not eagle, opportunity and past top-10 finishers have capitalized to keep climbing the leaderboard.

Sure, the 2020-21 season is well underway. But there’s something about Hawaii and a fresh calendar that makes this tournament feel like a new beginning. And, seriously, can any of us ever argue with golf in prime time?

Enjoy what we hope is a Sweet 16 power rankings and as always, good luck.

Golfer power rankings

16. Scottie Scheffler​ – A first-time participant at Kapalua, he was riding a torrid streak last summer before a bout with COVID-19 halted his momentum. Still, he finished top 20 at the Masters and the Texan is fond of the wind. He’s also a birdie machine (seventh on Tour in ‘19-20, 33rd this season) and a good value in this star-studded field.

15. Patrick Cantlay​ – Finished fourth in the Sentry TOC last year and T-15 in his only other appearance in 2018. A winner during the fall against a strong field at Sherwood, he ranks first in the field in SG: Putting over his eight rounds on the Plantation along with ninth in SG: Approach. He was 70th on the Tour in 3-putt avoidance in ‘19-20.

14. Cameron Champ​ – One of the Tour’s longest hitters should thrive on some of the Tour’s widest fairways. Finished T-14 and T-11 the last two years and he’s on my top-10 list of candidates poised to reach another level in 2021 – if he can make marginal improvements with the putter.

13. Daniel Berger​ – Has been on the fringe of contention in two previous Kapalua appearances – T-11 in 2018 and T-14 in 2017 – but his consistent performance last year thrust him into position to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team this fall. Can survive a few loose tee shots here and ride his strong iron game and putting.

12. Marc Leishman​ – The affable Australian was rolling early last year, winning at Torrey Pines and finishing runner-up at Bay Hill but struggled after the Tour resumed in June. But a tie for 13th at Augusta was promising and now he returns to a course where he’s finished in the top 10 in his last two appearances. Another good value.

11. Webb Simpson​ – He’s second in the field in SG: Approach at the Plantation Course over the last 24 rounds and has a pair of T-3s and another top 10 in his four Sentry starts. Just fading him slightly here due to some potential holiday rust.

10. Jason Kokrak​ – A hot putter propelled Kokrak to his first Tour victory at Shadow Creek and he enters the event ranked third in 2019-20 in SG: Putting. He should be able to unleash his driver and create birdie chances (top 20 on Tour) in his first trip around the Plantation.

9. Bryson DeChambeau​ – Let there be 200 mph ball speed and many 400-yard drives bounding down the fairways. Last time we saw Bryson he was bemoaning his health after a disappointing Masters tournament. And his younger, shorter hitting version of himself fared decent here, finishing seventh in 2019. It’s always an adventure with Bryson.

8. Viktor Hovland​ – The Norwegian Forest Cat won for the second time in 2020 in the year-ending Mayakoba Classic. He was seventh on the PGA Tour in SG: Approach-the-Green last season and 32nd in 3-putt avoidance. Oh, to be 23 and a flusher.

7. Joaquin Niemann​ – Before COVID-19 cost him the Masters, he was cruising along with four top 25s. Niemann finished T-44 at the RSM Classic and T-23 at Mayakoba. Last year in his Kaplaua debut, he was T-7. Avoiding 3-putts will be critical (180th on Tour) but has the requisite iron precision to flourish.

6. Patrick Reed​ – Hard to ignore Reed at Kapalua, where he’s won and finished runner-up. Last year he put on a short-game exhibition around the Plantation course and when the putter is hot, everything inside 10 feet is automatic. He’s also 30th in the field in SG: Approach over his last 24 rounds at Kaplaua, so you must weigh the risk and reward.

5. Hideki Matsuyama​ – In three appearances (‘15, ‘17, ‘18), Matsuyama has finished in the top-4 in the Sentry TOC each time. Makes sense that one of the world’s premier ballstrikers would thrive on a course that puts a premium on iron play. In those 12 rounds he’s the best in this year’s field in SG: Tee-to-Green and SG: Short Game. He’s also 21st in SG: Putting.

4. Jon Rahm ​- If Jon Rahm says he shot 59 with his new Callaway irons at his home course in Scottsdale, then I’ll take his word for it. It’s always news when one of the world’s best golfers changes equipment, but read the fine print and it reveals Rahm is playing with prototype woods and irons, which means they’re exactly what he wanted and possibly just like his old TaylorMade clubs. Anyway, he’s near the top of these lists until we quit writing them and he’s 37 under in three Sentry starts with a runner-up in ‘18 and two other top 10s.

3. Dustin Johnson ​- He should be No. 1, I know. He won the Masters in record fashion the last time we saw him. He’s been the best player in the world since the mid-summer. He’s won at Kapalua twice and finished in the top 10 in eight consecutive starts. That streak will continue, but he’s not going to win. Then again, he might.

2. Justin Thomas​ – In his 20 rounds at Kapalua, Thomas leads the field in SG: Approach and he rarely 3-putts (24th on the Tour in avoiding them). Followed him for about 45 holes at Augusta in November and not only does he play the appropriate shot into the greens but his pitching ability is masterful. That should help him improve his par-5 scoring average (96th).

1. Xander Schauffele​ – He’s shot the lowest score in the field over the last 144 holes at Kapalua (37 under), winning in 2019 and losing in the playoff last year. That victory in 2019 was also his last on the PGA Tour, which is surprising. As you might imagine, all of his Strokes Gained stats at Kapalua are impressive. The worst? SG: Approach, 14th in the field.

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