The Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii has always been one of the bright lights on the hill for desperate golfers in January aching for a golf season that still seems so far away. The tournament is played on the Kapalua Plantation Course in Maui, one of the most stunning venues we see televised all year, especially in HD.
Historically this was low hanging fruit as the first PGA Tour event of the year with an exclusive field of previous tournament winners and no cut and guaranteed money. With all that it seemed to always provided drama and intrigue for the anticipated golf season to come.
But global professional golf awash with cash and greed that drives it, this tournament no longer pulls the best players in the game to compete. Too many tournaments world wide over the full calendar year, the 45-event PGA Tour Season now beginning in October, and fat appearance fees beckoning from foreign events mitigate against the best players
showing up for this plunder in paradise. That is a huge shame since over the years we have seen some very compelling championships played on this unique venue.
The look down the Par 3 11th gives the full Maui flavor of the Plantation Course
What makes this event so special is the Plantation Course that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw created over 25 years ago. The course is uniquely suited for dramatic championship play. Expansive driving areas, billy goat topography to traverse, huge green complexes often north of 8000 square feet, and severe green slopes that make even 25 footers into three-jack possibilities. Throw in the typical 25 mph trade winds and you have an Open Championship experience in January.
The course rewards a swashbuckling driving attitude and crafty wedge play. Big driving areas seem overly kind, but like at Augusta wide driving areas afford lots of options on the driving lines and they need to be carefully planned depending on the day’s hole position.
There are shortish par fours, maybe reachable depending on the daily wind direction, on 3,4, 6, 10, 12, 13, 14, and 16 which can provide reward for risk successfully taken. But, as mentioned above, meander from the correct approach line and getting it close enough to two-putt can be a chore even with a wedge in your hand.
The green complexes themselves have false fronts, false shoulders, false everythings and combined with the swerves in the green surfaces themselves it takes all short game of a links course maven to get up and down to save pars.
Three of the four five pars go in the direction of the prevailing wind which makes going for them in two a thought for everyone in the field but Zack Johnson (speaking of crafty wedge players). But missing these three greens in two can easily lead to double or worse so this is where the swashbuckling attitude comes in.
The 17th and 18th guarantee a fanatical finish. The Par 4 17th may be the hardest par to make all day. After the first of two bungee cord drives over these last two holes players have to right-to-left side winder into a green with enough swerve it could be the second turn at Daytona. Yet flawless execution can leave a player with a makeable uphill birdie putt.
Top of the world…the tee box at the 18th….
The 18th is like hitting your drive down the downhill run at Kitzbuhel-there is a150-foot drop from tee to the landing zone below. The second is eminently reachable if you can hit a fairway metal off the sloped hood of a Jaguar XKE. If a player is in the hunt, a 3-3 finish is a distinct possibility……but so is a 6-6 finish.
Remember the duel between Ernie and Tiger in 2000. In regulation, from well over 250 out on the dramatic Par 5 18th, both guys hit amazing shots to within 15 feet to make eagle 3 and force a sudden death playoff. On the first playoff hole at 18 again both hit the green complex and made birdie to keep the playoff alive. On the tricky 1st hole Tiger rolled in an unlikely down hill log flume bomb for birdie that Ernie could not match-leaving his birdie putt two feet short right in the jaws. This dashed Ernie’s dream of a head-to-head victory against Tiger.
It is just a shame that guys with names like McIlroy, Kaymer, Spieth, Rose, Woods, McDowell, and Stenson no longer have the incentive nor the interest to play at Kapalua. The Tournament of Champions has lost it’s glow and become a corroboration venue for the emerging young guns rather than coronation championship for the Top 10 players in the game.