As usual, the PGA Tour curtain-raiser comes from the picturesque Plantation course at Kapalua, Hawaii. Restricted to winners from last year’s tour, and notably missing superstars of the calibre of Woods, Garcia, Mickelson and Harrington, it isn’t the most competitive renewal.
In fact, very few events have so consistently produced world-class champions over the years. Five of the last ten were Major winners, Sergio Garcia has done everything except win a Major, and three-time champ Stuart Appleby is the ultimate course specialist. Only Daniel Chopra last year represented anything other than an obvious selection.
These trends are compounded by the demands of Kapalua. A rare example of a par-73 used for tournament play, the five par-5s and wide-open fairways offer a clear advantage to big-hitters and make this very much a ‘second-shot course’. Its main defence is being totally exposed to the wind, which frequently blows at more than 20mph here. All in all, the very best long-iron players tend to prosper with their superior control, and the rest tend to get left behind. There is always marked separation on the leaderboard.
As a consequence, I’m happy to write off at least half of these, with many either lacking the necessary driving distance or simply not being good enough. Even some otherwise high-class candidates, such as Zach Johnson, Geoff Ogilvy or Carl Pettersson, have offered no encouragement on previous Kapalua visits.
Alternatively, the biggest names on show have superb records here. None more so than standout favourite Vijay Singh, who starts a prohibitively short 11/2. Winner in 2007, Vijay has made the top-4 places in six of his nine visits to Kapalua. Add in three prestigious summer victories to win the Fedex Cup, and a successful return from injury in the Target Challenge, and the case appears overwhelming.
But then there’s those short odds to consider. Even taking that great course record into account, a bet on Singh at these odds every year would have yielded an overall loss. And while those latest successes just serve to further embellish the reputation of the most admirable, hard-working professional in the game, I still can’t believe he’s getting better in his mid-40s. Indeed, prior to that Fedex Cup rejuvenation, the general consensus was that he was in decline.
That same concern surrounds the other course specialist, ERNIE ELS, who at 9/1 is at least a little better value. As a member of Ernie’s army of loyal backers, I’ve been through the full range of emotions at this venue. His winning total of 261 in 2003, an incredible 31 under-par, is one of the all-time great golf performances. And back in 2000, Ernie and Tiger fought out what remains my favourite finish ever to a golf tournament, trading blows all weekend including eagles on the 633 yard 18th before Tiger sunk his rival with a 40 foot birdie putt in the play-off.
I’ve always felt that defeat was the moment when Woods stamped his authority over Els, as the South African played the better golf all weekend but just couldn’t finish the job against an opponent with an uncanny knack for producing genius when it matters. Another negative memory for Els came on his last visit three years ago. Needing birdie to make a play-off and faced with the widest fairway imaginable, he somehow managed to drive out of bounds.
Nevertheless, his wider efforts that week illustrated Els’ love of this course and conditions. He’s made the top-3 in four of his five visits. And while he makes less appeal most weeks than at any stage in the past 15 years, failing to shake off the impression that the motivation just isn’t quite there anymore, Ernie is still well capable of winning at the highest level. His recent form is decent, not least a close runners-up spot against world-class opposition in Singapore. And he would surely have won a fifth South African Open title last time out were it not for a disastrous 77 in round 3, having to settle for a fast finishing 3rd place instead.
The other main contender is ANTHONY KIM. Despite being at a disadvantage making his course debut, Kim should absolutely love this course. Admittedly, all the value seems to have disappeared from Kim’s odds since his impressive emergence last summer, and recent bets on the Californian youngster have been ultimately frustrating. He certainly should have won in Canada, and could have strolled to victory in the Target Challenge with an even moderate showing on the greens.
Its important not to lose faith though, because this is all just the stuff to be expected of young prodigies. Indeed Kim’s performance at Sherwood was again reminiscent of a young Tiger; peppering the flags but too aggressive with the flat stick. He will be able to open his shoulders around this layout, and attack these holes. Even at just 9/1, he’s worth a bet because its so hard to see him finishing outside the front few places.