Every PGA Tour field is packed with winners. It takes a lot of wins at various amateur and lower levels just to make it onto the PGA Tour and the winning doesn’t stop for the best golfers in the world. The Sentry Tournament of Champions takes things up another level though and this is a unique event and one that dates all the way back to 1953 too.
Always the first PGA Tour event of the calendar year, the Tournament of Champions is open only to players who won on tour during the previous calendar year. That ensures that some of the biggest names in golf make the trip to Kapalua Resort on the Hawaiian island of Maui each year. The competition is always high but the Plantation Course is far from the most challenging of the year so birdies and thrilling finishes are the norm at the Tournament of Champions. Of course, being on Hawaii, the scenery is stunning and this combination of solid money, beautiful surroundings, a gettable course and relatively relaxed feel means this is always a popular event with the players.
2023: Jon Rahm
The 2023 edition of this tournament out in Hawaii proved to be one of the most dramatic in the history of the event. Fifty-four holes in, and Collin Morikawa seemed to be serenely coasting to victory, riding his exquisite iron play and back-to-form putting to post a score of 26-under over the first three rounds. That was good for a six-shot lead over the field, seeing the 2021 Open Champion trading as short as 1/6 heading into the final 18 holes.
He was however unable to hang on, partly due to his own failings, but mainly as a result of a simply stellar final round of play from Jon Rahm. Seven shots back at the beginning of the day, Rahm immediately put himself in a slightly deeper hole when bogeying the first, at which point the remarkable comeback that followed looked distinctly unlikely. Five birdies over the following eight holes improved matters, but still left him six back of Morikawa who posted a solid three-under over the front nine.
As is often the case, all of the drama came on the back nine. Rahm caught fire to go birdie, birdie, birdie, eagle on holes 12 through 15, whilst Morikawa’s short game crumbled with bogeys on 14, 15, and 16, creating a remarkable eight-shot turnaround. Both players birdied the last, as Rahm came home two shots clear of the visibly disappointed overnight leader, to record the biggest comeback victory in the tournament’s history. Morikawa became only the eighth player on the PGA Tour to squander a six-shot overnight lead. Meanwhile, the US duo of Tom Hoge and Max Home finished with a flourish to tie for third spot.
2022: Cameron Smith
As Justin Thomas said after the 2022 Sentry Tournament of Champions, give PGA Tour professionals soft greens and still conditions and they will rack up huge numbers of birdies on any golf course. With perfect scoring conditions at Kapalua Resort, everybody expected a seriously low winning score. Nobody quite expected the winner to require the record score in PGA Tour history to win but that was exactly what Cameron Smith needed with his -34 beating Jon Rahm by a single stroke.
This was a fourth PGA Tour win for Smith – and his second in Hawaii after his Sony Open win in 2020 – but his first that did not require a playoff. He must have thought that extra holes would once again be required as his playing partner and world number one Rahm was doing everything in his considerable power to start 2022 with a win. In the end, it was Smith’s putting that made the difference. While Rahm had the slight edge from tee to green, Smith was statistically the best putter of the week and that was the deciding factor in such a low-scoring tournament.
Rahm was one of three players to shoot rounds of 61 in the week. Justin Thomas matched Rahm in the third round while Matt Jones made a late charge with a brilliant final round. “Mate, it was intense,” Smith said of Sunday’s events. “Jonny and I played well the whole day and we had Matty in the group in front lighting it up as well. Unreal round, something I’ll never forget for sure.”
2021: Harris English
The disruption of the 2020 PGA Tour season due to the shutdown of the sport meant the qualification criteria for a place at the 2021 Tournament of Champions had to be relaxed. For one year only, the 30 players who qualified for the season ending Tour Championship could compete at Kapalua Resort. Harris English was one of the beneficiaries and he took full advantage by earning his first win on the PGA Tour for over seven years.
English had an outside chance to win the Tournament of Champions in style on the final hole. An eagle chance came and went but he gathered himself after missing that putt for the task ahead. That task was a playoff against the Chilean Joaquin Niemann, who fired in a 64 on Sunday to haul himself from seventh to a share of the lead on an impressive 25 under par. Such is the scoring at this event that was not even the lowest score in recent times, with Jordan Spieth’s -30 in 2016 holding that honour.
Even so, the momentum was very much with Niemann after such a high class final round but his best golf deserted him at the worst moment. His approach shot into the par five 18th hole on the first playoff hole missed in a horrible spot and although he was able to get up and down for par, English played the hole properly and secured the winning birdie. The win was a huge relief and ensured that English would be back in the Tournament of Champions field in 2022.
2020: Justin Thomas
Xander Schauffele showed that he has the game to take the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort apart with a stunning 62 in the final round of 2019’s Tournament of Champions that earned him the title. He came so close to defending his title too and it was no surprise that Schauffele found himself right in the heat of the battle for 2020’s edition. However, he was the first man eliminated from a three-man playoff which also involved Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed. Schauffele’s involvement ended on the first extra hole and it took two more for Thomas to get the better of Reed after the three Americans finished tied on a relatively modest total of -14.
Relief was the overwhelming emotion for Thomas when he had secured the win. He took control of the tournament over his front nine on Sunday, usurping Schauffele at the top of the leaderboard. However, a series of sloppy mistakes opened the door for both Reed and Schauffele who had two putts to win the tournament outright on the final hole only to take three and set up the playoff.
“I got very, very lucky,” Thomas admitted in his post tournament interview. “I also stuck to my process and tried to stay positive. Just tried to tell myself, ‘There’s a reason I’m still here and we still got a chance to win’, and we were fortunate to do that.”
2019: Xander Schauffele
As impressive as Dustin Johnson’s runaway win by eight shots was at Kapaula Resort in 2018, golf fans really had their appetite whet for the coming year with an engrossing finish to the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions. Johnson was one of a number of players involved in the mix on a thrilling Sunday of action in which Xander Schauffele’s course record-tying round of 62 was enough to win by a single shot.
As so many great rounds seem to, Schauffele’s final round opened with a bogey. It would be the only blemish on a scorecard which included eight birdies and two eagles. Schauffele needed to be that good to win given that he started Sunday five shots behind Gary Woodland who himself went round in a more than respectable 68, five shots under par. Woodland did nothing wrong and ended with a bogey-free card but he was kicking himself that the 18th was the only par five that he failed to birdie.
“It was a crazy day,” Schauffele said as he was asked to sum up how he felt after the second lowest final round in PGA Tour history. “I knew it was going to be a birdie fest coming in,” he continued before adding, “We kept our head down and tried to run for it.” That proved to be the right strategy during a well deserved and highly impressive win.
2018: Dustin Johnson
The field for the 2018 Tournament of Champions was as strong as ever. With each of the world’s top five competing at Kapalua Resort, this was a chance for one of golf’s big names to lay down a marker for the year ahead. That’s exactly what the best of the lot Dustin Johnson did. He became the third player ranked number one in the world to win the tournament, doing so by a beefy eight shots from runner up Jon Rahm.
Johnson hasn’t always found it easy to close tournaments out even when the beneficiary of a head-start on Sunday. This time around he had no problems converting his overnight lead of two shots though. Showing extreme confidence in the state of his game, Johnson decided that attack was the best form of defence when it came to maintaining his lead. Some stunning golf on Maui saw the two shot lead become six after the front nine and he wasn’t done pouring on the aggression there. Johnson’s blend of power and technique was summed up perfectly on the 14th hole. Not only did he drive the green but his tee shot finished just six inches from the pin, setting up the simplest of eagle putts.
Driving well has always been important on the Plantation Course. That gave Johnson ample confidence as he made his return after the festive break. “I was driving it well this week,” Johnson said. “I knew as long as I could keep doing that I was going to do well.” Typically understated from a man who blew away this field of champions to take home a cheque for a rather handy $1.26m.