January 22, 2018

By Tom LaMarre, The Sports Xchange
Publish Date: January 2, 2018 04:01:44 PM


10 Players to Watch: Sentry Tournament of Champions

1. Jordan Spieth, United States -- When Spieth tied for third in the Tournament of Champions last year, it was his worst finish in three starts in the event that opens the new year at Kapalua Resort on Maui. He finished second, one stroke behind Zach Johnson, in 2014, and came back two years later to register a dominating eight-stroke victory over Patrick Reed on the Plantation Course, finishing one stroke shy of the 72-hole tournament record of 31 under par set by Ernie Els in 2003. Spieth, ranked second in the world, is making his first start of the new season and is coming off a year in which he won three times, giving him 10 of his 11 PGA Tour victories in the last three campaigns. He captured the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in July after winning both the Masters and U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in 2015, so he will make his second bid to complete the career Grand Slam in the PGA Championship next July at Bellerive in St. Louis.

2. Justin Thomas, United States -- With a victory already under his belt in the new season, having won the CJ Cup in a playoff over Marc Leishman of Australia in October in South Korea, Thomas is primed for his double title defense in Hawaii. He won the Tournament of Champions by three strokes over Hideki Matsuyama of Japan last January and followed a week later with an even more impressive seven-shot victory over Justin Rose of England at the Sony Open in Hawaii at Waialae, where he opened with an 11-under-par 59. Thomas, No. 3 in the world, joined Ernie Els of South Africa (2003) as the only players to sweep the first two events of the year in Hawaii. He finished with five victories in 2016-17, including his first major title in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, en route to winning the FedExCup and earning PGA Tour Player of the Year honors. Thomas, who tied for 21st in his only other start at Kapalua, will try to become the first back-to-back winner in the TOC since Geoff Ogilvy of Australia in 2009-10.

3. Dustin Johnson, United States -- DJ won the WGC-Mexico Championship and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match play in consecutive starts heading into the Masters last April, then sustained a back injury on the day before the first major of the year that knocked him out of the tournament. The top-ranked player in the world got back on track, winning the Northern Trust during the playoffs to finish the season with four victories, also winning the Genesis Open at Riviera in February. Johnson started the new season in October with a tie for second in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, where he held a six-stroke lead heading to the final round but blew it all while posting an ugly 77. He is making his eighth start in the Tournament of Champions, and has finished in the top 10 in his last five starts at Kapaula, including a victory in 2013. Johnson held a four-stroke lead over Steve Stricker after 54 holes that year and was declared the winner when inclement weather wiped out the final round.

4. Jon Rahm, Spain -- The Spaniard was not the PGA Tour's Rookie of the Year last season only because he played in too many events while earning his playing card after graduating from Arizona State -- where he won 11 times -- in the spring of 2016. He was close to winning in those first seven tournaments, tying for second in the RBC Canadian Open and tying for third in the Quicken Loans National, but broke through for his first PGA Tour victory last February when he captured the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Rahm, already No. 4 in the world at age 23, added 10 other results in the top 10 on the PGA Tour last season and finished fifth in the FedExCup standings after four finishes in the top seven during the playoffs. He won the Irish Open in July and the year-ending World Tour Championship-Dubai to finish third in the season-long Race to Dubai, and was selected the European Tour's Rookie of the Year while playing only 13 events. Rahm is making his first appearance in the Tournament of Champions.

5. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan -- By winning seven times around the globe since early 2016, giving him 14 career victories, Matsuyama starts the new year at No. 5 in the world. Although he seemed to run out of gas late last year, he showed earlier in the season that he could win against the best fields, capturing the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai by seven strokes and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational by five at Firestone. Matsuyama has yet to win a major title, but he finished in the top 10 on five occasions in the last three seasons. Last year, his worst result in the Grand Slam events was a tie for 14th in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. He led the FedExCup standings much of last year on the strength of his three victories and seven top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, but his slump during the playoffs dropped him to eighth. Matsuyama is making his third start in the Tournament of Champions, and obviously enjoys the Plantation Course, having finished second last year and tied for third in 2015.

6. Rickie Fowler, United States -- It was an unofficial victory, but Fowler won the Hero World Challenge in his last start, beating Charley Hoffman by four strokes at Albany Resort in the Bahamas. It was the eighth victory of his pro career, and that has been the knock on the seventh-ranked player in the world -- that he doesn't win enough for someone with his talent. Fowler also finished in a tie for second, one stroke behind first-time PGA Tour winner Patton Kizzire, in his only start in the early portion of the 2017-2108 wrap-around schedule in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Mexico in November. Fowler birdied two of the last three holes, but barely fell short. He gained his fourth PGA Tour victory last year in the Honda Classic and figures to be in the hunt in his third start in the Tournament of Champions. He finished in a tie for sixth in his first appearance at Kapalua and tied for fifth last year with four scores in the 60s.

7. Brooks Koepka, Untied States -- The reigning U.S. Open champion got off to a fast start in the new season when he tied for second, two strokes behind Justin Rose of England in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China at the end of October. He held the lead with an opening 64 and followed that with a 68, but shot 71-73 on the weekend, including a costly double-bogey 5 on the 15th hole in the final round. Then he headed for Japan and won the Dunlop Phoenix by a whopping nine strokes in November. Koepka, whose only other victory on the PGA Tour came in the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, posted seven results in the top 10 last season, including second in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and the Valero Texas Open. He is making his second start in the Tournament of Champions, having tied for third in 2016. He shot 63 in the third round on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, but closed with a 71 and wound up nine strokes behind winner Jordan Spieth.

8. Marc Leishman, Australia -- The top-ranked Aussie in the world at No. 12, one spot ahead of Jason Day, Leishman won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March and the BMW Championship during the playoffs last year in a career season. He had a chance to win the FedExCup after that victory and wound up sixth in the point standings after a disappointing tie for 24th in the Tour Championship. Then Leishman got off to a quick start to the new season by finishing solo second in the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in South Korea, losing in a playoff to Justin Thomas. The Aussie birdied the final hole of regulation to catch Thomas, but then hit his tee shot into the water on the second extra hole, where the American won with a birdie. Leishman returned home late in the year and tied for fourth in the Australian PGA Championship. In his only previous start in the Tournament of Champions, he tied for 23rd in 2013 after qualifying by winning the Travelers Championship.

9. Xander Schauffele, United States -- The 2016-17 Rookie of the Year capped his first season on the PGA Tour by outlasting Justin Thomas, the FedExCup champion and Player of the Year, to win the Tour Championship by one stroke at East Lake in Atlanta in October. He already had earned his spot in the winners-only Tournament of Champions by winning the Greenbrier Classic by one shot over Robert Streb in July, and obviously will be making his debut on the Plantation Course at Kapalua this week. Schauffele, another budding star on the circuit who graduated from high school in 2011 along with Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Daniel Berger, Ollie Schniederjans and Emiliano Grillo of Argentina, among others, continued his strong play after his rookie season ended. He headed for Asia and tied for third in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia and then tied for second in the Dunlop Phoenix Open in Japan, although he finished nine shots behind runaway winner Brooks Koepka.

10. Cameron Smith, Australia -- Another player who had a breakthrough year in 2017, the 24-year-old Aussie teamed with Jonas Blixt of Sweden to win the Zurich Classic of New Orleans -- the first two-man team event on the PGA Tour since 1981 -- for his initial victory on the circuit. They did not make a bogey throughout the tournament, and beat Scott Brown and Kevin Kisner when Smith made a short birdie putt on the fourth playoff hole. However, his best golf came after the 2016-17 season came to an end. He tied for fifth in the CIMB Classic on Malaysia and then finished third in the CJ Cup in South Korea, one stroke out of the playoff in which Justin Thomas beat another Aussie, Marc Leishman. Then Smith headed home and recorded another high finish by tying for fourth in the Australian Open, one week before claiming his second professional victory in the Australian PGA Championship by beating countryman Jordan Zunic with a par on the second playoff hole