Hyundai Tournament of Champions 2014: Preview

By David Tindall.   Last Updated: 31/12/13 4:52pm

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Dustin Johnson: Defending champion in Maui

Dustin Johnson: Defending champion in Maui

Sky Bet

Although no longer the seasonal opener - we've already had six events in the inaugural 2013/14 wraparound schedule - the feeling remains that this is where the bright, shiny new campaign begins.

As usual, the spectacular oceanside Plantation Course in Maui plays host to the limited field comprising 30 pros who punched their tickets to Hawaii by winning on the PGA Tour in 2013.

Once more, Tiger and Phil have given it a swerve but six of the top 16 in the current world rankings do make the trip, including No.2 Adam Scott. There is no cut so it's a good chance for players to shake off rust if not in contention.

Winds are a constant factor on the severely undulating 7,411-yard par 73 (just three par threes) but birdies and eagles are commonplace with the last four winning scores -16 (54 holes), -23, -24 and -22. The greens are some of the biggest on Tour so three-putts are common too.

The feeling that the wide fairways play into the hands of grip-it-and-rip-it long hitters was franked by Dustin Johnson's victory last year although Steve Stricker (winner in 2012, runner-up last year) has shown that a sharp wedge game and hot putter can be another path to success.

Stricker, who isn't here this year after failing to win in 2013, once gave this useful advice on what to expect this week:

"You need to learn a lot of things about this course. There's some different things here that we don't normally face at any other tournament. You've got big undulations, big downhill shots, some uphill shots, a lot of wind. The greens are huge. But you know, putting uphill is pretty slow and putting downhill is extremely fast. I think the more times we play it, the better you learn going around here each time."

Sky Sports has live coverage of all four days

The leading contenders (with Sky Bet odds):

Adam Scott (5/1): After winning two legs of the Aussie Triple Crown in November and being pipped for the third at the 72nd hole by Rory McIlroy at the start of December, in-form Scott is a natural favourite to win this event for the first time. In five previous starts here, he can boast a second place in 2007, a fifth in 2005 and a seventh in 2004. His two most recent efforts are 18th (2009) and 21st (2011) but playing here as a major winner for the first time will give him some extra swagger.

Dustin Johnson (15/2): Two years ago DJ came off the course and said: "Hit a lot of drivers, so it sets up good, and the fairways are fairly generous. They are nice. And I can drive it close to a few of the par fours." He finished ninth that year after previous efforts of 16th (2010) and 11th (2009) but there was always good reason to believe that he could win this event one day and that happened 12 months ago when he took the title by four shots. A winner in the HSBC in China on his last Tour start and the reputation this course has for repeat champions suggests he's one for the shortlist.

Matt Kuchar (8/1): Kuchar ended 2013 with his usual run of high finishes, including a second place in the Aussie Masters where he topped the Putting Averages and a tied third in Tiger's event. He's done well on the Plantation Course in his recent visits, with a third in 2010, a sixth in 2011 and a ninth last year when a gradual climb up the leaderboard after a slow start was cut off by the event being reduced to 54 holes. Likely to be prominent but there's a feeling that next week's Sony Open course suits his game better.

Webb Simpson (8/1): Twelve months ago here in appalling conditions, Simpson somehow made it to three-under par after seven holes before play was abandoned and scores wiped out. At the time he led by two and already had a big lead over many of the other 24 players who had teed off. His eventual 11th place gave the impression that it wasn't his week. Simpson's only other appearance produced a third in 2012 while a win in Las Vegas at the end of October suggests he's a dangerman this week.

Zach Johnson (14/1): Johnson pulled a rabbit from a hat to win Tiger's event last month, holing a wedge to force a play-off and then taking down Woods in extra time. It was a quick follow-up to his win in the BMW Championship in Illinois so he remains one of the most prolific gatherer of trophies on the PGA Tour. He produced a hot 64-67 finish to take sixth place here in 2009 but he's finished in the bottom half of the field in all his other five efforts so he doesn't seem the right horse for this course.

Brandt Snedeker (16/1): Snedeker loves the sea-air in his nostrils and in the early part of last year he won at Pebble Beach, was runner-up at Torrey Pines and took third place here. Although he took victory in the Canadian Open in July, the second half of the season was something of a comedown from his sparkling play in the opening months so it's hard to form a confident opinion about his chances. His only other start here produced a 10th in 2010 so he certainly appears to get on well with the course.

Bill Haas (22/1): Haas has had three cracks at this event, finishing eighth on debut in 2011 and a disappointing 20th and 23rd in 2012 and 2013. Looking at his stats from those three finishes shows that he's really had trouble on the greens. Last year he took 33.67 putts per round while it was an even worse 34.00 in 2012. A run of less than sparkling form at the end of 2013 gives him the look of a player to oppose rather than back this week.

Best of the rest:

Chris Kirk captured the McGladrey Classic on his last start and shot 16-under for his last 54 holes to finish seventh here on his only appearance in 2012. Ryan Moore has a similar mix of credentials having won October's CIMB Classic and finished sixth here on debut in 2010. Scotland's Martin Laird loves this venue (4th 2010, 2nd 2012) but his form for the last few months of 2013 is off-putting. Of the first-time visitors, Jordan Spieth, Billy Horschel, Harris English and Jimmy Walker could all feature.

Conclusion

The market leaders all look strong in this 2014 opener but preference is for Dustin Johnson on a quirky course that throws up repeat winners. Master it once and you have the tricks of the trade to do it again.

Stuart Appleby won here three times in a row (2004, 2005, 2006) while Geoff Ogilvy went back-to-back in 2009 and 2010. Steve Stricker, the 2012 winner, went close to a successful defence last year, finishing runner-up.

Johnson has repeated last year's winning formula of arriving on the island early and the fact that he won at coastal Pebble Beach in successive years in 2009 and 2010 adds another shot of confidence.

He closed 2013 with a dominant victory in China where he overpowered the course and that's what he did here 12 months ago.

At more mouthwatering odds of 28/1, Chris Kirk can make a big run at the title. He's a birdie machine who has two wins to his name now and took to this course on debut two years ago.

Daniel Chopra showed that first-timers can buck the trend and win here and Jimmy Walker might just pull off a repeat feat.

Like the Swede, he's a big hitter who can get hot with the putter (he's currently 2nd in Driving Distance and 2nd in Strokes Gained - Putting from the admittedly short sample of 2013 events in this wraparound season) and will have a nothing-to-lose attitude after finally silencing the doubters and winning his first PGA Tour event just a few months ago.

He arrived on Sunday, all wide-eyed, and this course should be right up his street.

Best bets

4pts win Dustin Johnson at 15/2
1.5pts e.w. Chris Kirk at 28/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4)
1.5pts e.w. Jimmy Walker at 33/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4)

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