10 Players to Watch: SBS Tournament of Champions

  1. Jordan Spieth, United States — Out to regain the No. 1 world ranking he traded with Jason Day and Rory McIlroy last year, Spieth will be defending one of three titles he won a year ago in the first event of 2017. While three titles normally would be a good season for any golfer, it paled in comparison to the five tournaments, including the Masters and U.S. Open, he captured in a brilliant 2015 campaign. Spieth tied the tournament record of 30-under-par in winning the Tournament of Champions by 8 strokes over Patrick Reed last year and is 48-under is his only two appearances at Kapalua, having finished 1 shot behind Zach Johnson in solo second in 2014. Spieth, down to No. 5 in the world, is coming off a playoff victory over Cameron Smith and Ashley Hall in his last event of 2015, the Emirates Australian Open, in November.
  1. Dustin Johnson, United States — Coming off the best season of his career which has lifted him to No. 3 in the world, Johnson will be looking to extend his streak to 10 straight seasons with a victory on the PGA Tour, the longest active run on the circuit. The 2016 PGA Tour Player of the Year won three big events in 2016, including his first major title in the U.S. Open at Oakmont, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the BMW Championship during the FedExCup playoffs. Johnson is playing in the Tournament of Champions for the seventh time, more than any player in the winners-only field, and won the tournament by 4 strokes over Steve Stricker in 2013, when rain shortened the event to 54 holes. He has finished in the top 10 four straight years at Kapalua, including a tie for sixth in his title defense, when he took the lead into the final round but closed with a 73.
  1. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan — The hottest player on the planet, the sixth-ranked Matsuyama won four of his last five tournaments around the world in 2016, including the WGC-HSBC Champions by a whopping 7 strokes over Henrik Stenson of Sweden and Daniel Berger. He has finished in the top 10 in six consecutive tournaments, including second in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia and a tie for sixth in the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta last September. The 24-year-old, who already has 12 professional victories, is playing in the Tournament of Champions for the second time, having tied for third in 2015 after sharing the lead with eventual winner Patrick Reed and Jimmy Walker after 54 holes before closing with a 70 as they went low at Kapalua. Matsuyama starts the new year leading the FedExCup standings thanks to his 1-2 finishes in the WGC-HSBC Champions and the CIMB Classic.
  1. Patrick Reed, United States — One of three former Tournament of Champions winners in the field, Reed might have run out of gas from playing more than 30 times in 2016 when he struggled to a tie for 51st in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia and tied for 60th in the WGC-HSBC Champions in his only two events of the Fall portion of the wrap-around schedule. However, he is coming off another fine season, including his fifth PGA Tour victory in the Barclays to start the FedExCup playoffs and two runner-up finishes among his 11 results in the top 10. One of those seconds came in the Tournament of Champions, which he led after a first-round 65, before finishing 8 shots behind runaway winner Jordan Spieth. A year earlier, Reed won the tournament when his 18-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole beat Jimmy Walker, after he also made birdie on the final hole of regulation play.
  1. Jason Day, Australia — The top-ranked player in the world will tee it up competitively for the first time since he withdrew from the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship at the end of the FedExCup playoffs because of a nagging back injury. Day claims he is at full strength again after 3 1/2 months off but will have to be careful since the back has become something of a chronic problem. The injury came at the end of a season in which he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship and the Players Championship among 10 finishes in the top 10 on the PGA Tour. Day, who has won eight times in the last two seasons on the circuit, is making his third appearance in the Tournament of Champions, having tied for ninth in 2011, tied for third in 2015 when he closed with a 62, and tied for 10th last year.
  1. Bubba Watson, United States — Watson will make his debut playing a pink golf ball made by Volvik, switching from the Titleist ball he has used for years. Already one of the longest hitters in the game, Watson said he thought about the change after watching the bombers playing Volvik during the World Long Drive Championship. Watson is making his sixth appearance in the Tournament of Champions, with his best result a tie for fourth in 2013, when the event was shortened to 54 holes by rain. He has finished 10th each of the last two years at Kapalua. Watson, ranked 10th in the world, is coming off a season in which he claimed his ninth PGA Tour victory in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera and finished second in his next outing, the WGC-Cadillac Championship. However, he didn’t do much the rest of the year, with only two other top-10s.
  1. Jimmy Walker, United States — Even though Walker didn’t player nearly as well throughout last season as he had in the previous two, he made it a year to remember when he claimed his first major title in the PGA Championship at Baltusrol, where he held off world No. 1 Jason Day by 1 stroke. After winning twice in each of the two previous seasons, he posted only two other top-10 results, including third in the Deutsche Bank Championship during the FedExCup playoffs. His best golf came late in the year, as he teamed with Rickie Fowler to finish second in the unofficial ISPS Handa World Cup of Golf in Australia two months ago. Walker is making his fourth start in the Tournament of Champions and held a 2-stroke lead heading to the final hole two years ago, but closed with a bogey that allowed Patrick Reed to catch him with a birdie, and win with another birdie on the first playoff hole.
  1. Russell Knox, Scotland — Coming off first two PGA Tour victories last season, Knox got off to a strong start to the new campaign in the Fall when he tied for 10th in the CIMB Classic, tied for ninth in his title defense in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China and finished solo third in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba. He earned that first PGA Tour victory by 2 strokes over Kevin Kisner in China and added another in the Travelers Championship, in which he held off Jerry Kelly by 1 stroke. That gave him a return trip to the Tournament of Champions, where in his first start last year he struggled to solo 27th in his debut on the Plantation Course at Kapalua. When Knox captured the WGC-HSBC, he became the first player to win his debut in the World Golf Championships since Jeff Maggert won the first event in the series history in 1999.
  1. Justin Thomas, United States — The 23-year-old Thomas is second behind Hideki Matsuyama in the early FedExCup standings on the strength of his successful title defense in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia two months ago and a tie for eighth in the Safeway Open to start the new season. He also tied for 23rd in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China. Thomas is making his second appearance in the Tournament of Champions, having finished in a tie for 21st in his debut on the Plantation Course at Kapalua last year. In addition to claiming his first PGA Tour victory in the 2015 CIMB Classic, he posted six other top-10 finishes last season, winding up third four times — in the Frys.com Open, the Honda Classic, the Players Championship and the Travelers Championship. Thomas also was sixth in the Tour Championship and figures to start turning some of those close calls into victories.
  1. Brandt Snedeker, United States — Snedeker, the 2007 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, has had a fine career that includes eight victories on the circuit, and last year he continued to bounce back from a series of rib injuries that threatened his career. After losing to Fabian Gomez of Argentina on the second hole of a playoff in the Sony Open in Hawaii, he won the Farmers Insurance Open two weeks later by one stroke over K.J. Choi. Snedeker added five other top-10 finishes, including third twice, made it all the way to the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta and wound up 15th in the FedExCup standings. He will be making his fifth start in the Tournament of Champions, and last year he finished in a tie for third to equal his best result in the tournament in 2013.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre


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