10 Players to Watch: Hyundai Tournament of Champions


  1. Jordan Spieth, United States — Rory McIlroy warned Spieth that backing up his brilliant 2015 season won’t be that easy, but the 22-year-old was still going strong last month, when he finished fourth in the Hero World Challenge. Spieth starts the year atop the World Golf Rankings after winning five times last year, including the Masters and the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. This is only his second start in the Hyundai TOC, but he took to the Plantation Course right away two years ago, when he finished second, one stroke behind Zach Johnson. Spieth was tied for the lead entering the final round and closed with a 4-under-par 69. However, he missed two birdie putts from about 6 feet down the stretch, and Johnson passed him with a 66.
  1. Dustin Johnson, United States — DJ is back in Kapalua after skipping the Hyundai Tournament of Champions last year while on a six-month leave of absence from the PGA Tour to take care of personal issues. He has used his prodigious length off the tee to great advantage at the Plantation Course, finishing in the top 10 in each of his past three appearances, including a victory in 2013. That title came on the strength of rounds of 69-68-66 that made him a winner by three shots over Steve Stricker when the tournament was limited to 54 holes because of inclement weather. Johnson had a chance to repeat in 2014 when he was tied for the lead entering the final round, but he closed with an even-par 73 and tied for sixth.
  1. Jason Day, Australia — If Day can shake off any rust that accumulated since he last played in the Presidents Cup in October, he should be a contender on the Plantation Course. He took time off for the birth of his second child, Lucy, after a season in which he won five times, including his first major title in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. No. 2 in the World Golf Rankings, he could push No. 1 Jordan Spieth at Kapalua, where he has finished in the top 10 in both of his previous appearances. Day closed with a brilliant 11-under 62 last year to finish one stroke out of the playoff in which Patrick Reed defeated Jimmy Walker, and he tied for ninth in 2011, bouncing back from a lackluster, even-par 73 in the first round.
  1. Patrick Reed, United States — The defending champion returns to the Plantation Course hoping to pick up right where he left off last month, when he finished second against a strong field in the unofficial Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, recording his sixth consecutive top-10 finish at the end of 2015. Last year at Kapalua, Reed rallied from four strokes behind with four holes to play in the final round, making two birdies and an 80-foot chip-in for eagle on the 16th hole to catch Walker before winning with an 18-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole. He joined Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy as the only players since 1990 to win four times by the age of 25, and Jordan Spieth would become a member of that club a few months later.
  1. Rickie Fowler, United States — Having risen to No. 6 in the World Golf Rankings while proving he could be a consistent winner by claiming three titles last year, including the Players Championship, Fowler starts a year in which his top goal is to claim his first major championship. This will be his second appearance in the Hyundai TOC. He tied for sixth two years ago when the tournament was shortened to 54 holes by stormy weather, bouncing back from a 1-over 74 in the second round with a closing 67. Fowler finished 2015 with more solid play, tying for 25th in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, tying for 17th in the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions and taking solo third in the Hero World Challenge.
  1. Bubba Watson, United States — One of the longest hitters in golf in addition to being one of the game’s most talented shot-makers, Watson has what it takes to dominate on the spacious Plantation Course, but he has not quite done it yet. He has played in the Hyundai TOC at Kapalua four times previously and broke into the top 10 only in the last two, with a tie for fourth in the rain-shortened event in 2013 and solo 10th last year. However, the fourth-ranked Watson is coming off a victory in the Hero World Challenge last month after being a last-minute entry, and he also enjoyed a 2014-15 season in which he finished in the top three seven times — including victories in the WGC-HSBC Championship and the Travelers Championship.
  1. Zach Johnson, United States — In addition to taming lengthy Augusta National with his straight and steady game to win the 2007 Masters, plus winning the Open Championship last year at St. Andrews, Johnson captured the Hyundai TOC on the spacious Plantation Course two years ago. He came from two strokes down by closing with a 6-under-par 67, carding four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine by hitting wedge shots close each time. He claimed a one-stroke victory over Jordan Spieth. Last year as defending champion, Johnson shared the 36-hole lead after opening with 68-67 before shooting even-par 73 and then finishing solo seventh following another 67. He is coming off a season in which he finished in the top 10 on 10 occasions, including his victory in the third major of the year.
  1. Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland — McDowell hopes to ride into the new year on the momentum of his third PGA Tour victory in the Mayakoba Classic in November and a solo third in the RSM Classic a week later. This could be the start of a resurgence for him after a two-year slump, which he attributes in part to neglecting his game a bit to get married and start a family. McDowell is making his second start in the Hyundai TOC, and he enjoyed the Plantation Course the first time around. He followed an opening 2-under-par 71 with 68-68-62 to wind up one stroke out of the playoff in which Jonathan Byrd beat Robert Garrigus in 2011. McDowell played so poorly for most of 2015 that he didn’t make the FedEx Cup playoffs, and he bowed out of the Race to Dubai on the European Tour early.
  1. Kevin Kisner, United States — One of 14 first-time winners playing in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Kisner made it to Kapalua with a resounding six-stroke victory in the RSM Classic in November after losing in playoffs at the RBC Heritage, the Players Championship and the Greenbrier Classic earlier in the year. He won the final event of the early portion of the 2015-16 schedule by playing the weekend in 64-64 after finishing second a few weeks earlier in the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in China. Kisner started the WGC event with 64-66 to take the 36-hole lead, but he closed with 70-70 to wind up two shots behind Martin Laird of Scotland. Those 1-2 finishes in the fall have lifted Kisner into the early lead in the FedEx Cup standings.
  1. Jimmy Walker, United States — Suddenly becoming a force on the PGA Tour by claiming his first five victories on the circuit after reaching the age of 33 in 2013, Walker seemed headed for another title when he held a five-stroke lead with five holes remaining in the 2015 Hyundai TOC. However, he made his first bogey in a span of 33 holes at No. 14, and Patrick Reed caught him with two birdies and an eagle down the stretch before winning with an 18-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole. Walker, who tied for 21st in his first appearance at Kapalua two years ago, bounced back the following week to win for the second straight year in the Sony Open in Hawaii, this time by nine strokes, and later in the year captured the Valero Texas Open.

Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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