Players: Long hitters have advantage

Changes on Nos. 4, 6 have Plantation Course measuring 7,518 yards

Rory McIlroy walks off the Kapalua Plantation Course’s 18th green after finishing his Sentry Tournament of Champions pro-am round Wednesday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

KAPALUA — Rory McIlroy is ready to make his visits to the Kapalua Plantation Course a habit.

The No. 8-ranked golfer in the world is set to make his debut in the Sentry Tournament of Champions when he tees off at noon today in a pairing with Xander Schauffele.

McIlroy is making a transition to full-time status on the PGA Tour rather than the split schedule he has worked between the PGA and European tours for most of his professional career.

That starts in earnest this week, and he likes what he sees in the 7,518-yard Plantation Course.

“I’ve watched a lot of it on TV over the years. Big, wide fairways. Length is probably a big factor here,” McIlroy said. “If you can get driver in your hand there’s some, the four par-5s, but then there’s some longer par-4s, but then there’s some shorter par-4s that you can get close to the green.

Defending champion Dustin Johnson chips to the ninth green.

“So I can see why the scores have been low over the years and why some guys have been able to shoot some great scores, but depends on the conditions this week. The wind is supposed to be up Thursday, Friday, so at least it’s coming from the same direction, so I’ve got a chance to play in that wind and I can get pretty comfortable playing the golf course that way.”

World No. 1 Brooks Koepka, the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year, agreed that long hitters will have an advantage this week. The Plantation Course is officially playing 66 yards longer than last year. The tee box on No. 4 was moved back 42 yards, making the par-4 hole measure 424 yards. The par-4 sixth hole added 24 yards and is now 422 yards long.

“Definitely, I think the big hitters get a little bit of an advantage,” Koepka said. “There’s some little swales we can get down where we can get an extra 30 yards off the tee and then obviously that correlates into the whatever shot you got next. So being a bit long hitter definitely is an advantage.”

Officials at the course announced Wednesday that the Plantation will close on Feb. 11 to undergo a “multi-million dollar enhancement project aimed at refining and revitalizing the 27-year-old golf course,” according to a press release. It is scheduled to reopen in November.

“I think you got to be able to control your flight out here. You never know when these gusts are going to pop up,” Koepka said. “They can come from into off the right and all of a sudden just go slightly down and you could airmail a green pretty quickly, but you need to control your flight around here.

Patrick Reed, the 2015 Tournament of Champions winner, follows the flight of his chip on the ninth hole Wednesday.

“The greens are big enough where you seem to if you can hit it in the right spot it will always kind of funnel back in and things like that. So the fairways are generous, too, so we can kind of give it a whack and it shouldn’t go too far off the fairway.”

Cameron Champ, a 23-year-old who has burst onto the scene as the longest of the long hitters since his victory in late October, likes his chances this week.

“Right now it’s soft, but obviously in general distance here is a huge key. It can be,” Champ said. “I think ball striking is key because the greens are very big. It’s all about placement on the greens and obviously making the putts at the end. But you can hit it on some greens and have over a 100-foot putt. So, definitely I would say distance, depending upon the wind situations and whatnot, it can definitely help out.”

Champ and McIlroy are among the eight first-timers here, but several players are back in the winners-only event after long layoffs.

When Charles Howell III won the RSM Classic, it was his first victory in 4,292 days — he has played here twice, finishing in a tie for sixth in 2003 and a tie for eighth in 2008. Paul Casey is here after breaking a 3,262-day winless drought, while Kevin Na, Keegan Bradley and Ted Potter Jr. are all in the field after more than 2,000 days between wins.

World No. 1 Brooks Koepka walks to his ball on the ninth green.

The field is loaded, with 34 of the 37 winners from 2018 participating, including seven of the top eight in the world ranking and four of the last six FedEx Cup champions.

Dustin Johnson, the No. 3-ranked golfer in the world, is the defending champion at Kapalua, one of his three victories last year. He will never take being here for granted.

“Well if it wasn’t as hard, I would win more. I mean, so, yeah, it is difficult (to win),” Johnson said. “There’s so many good players on the PGA Tour. Any week any guy that’s playing in the field’s got a chance to win and so it’s just difficult to win.

“For me, yeah, if it was easier, yeah, I would win a lot more. But I work hard at it and I feel like I should have a few more wins, but so should everyone else. But, yeah, like you ask anybody out here, it’s hard to win.”

Tickets can be purchased by calling 665-9160 or visiting sentrytournamentofchampions.com.

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

PGA Sentry Tournament of Champions

At Kapalua Plantation Course

(TV coverage in parentheses)

Today

10 a.m.–First round (1 p.m., GOLF)

Friday

10 a.m.–Second round (1 p.m., GOLF)

Saturday

8 a.m.–Third round (11 a.m., NBC; 1 p.m., GOLF)

Sunday

10 a.m.–Final round (1 p.m., GOLF)

PGA Sentry Tournament of Champions Tee Times

Today’s First Round

At Kapalua Plantation Course

10 a.m.–Satoshi Kodaira, Cameron Champ.

10:10 a.m.–Kevin Tway, Troy Merritt.

10:20 a.m.–Matt Kuchar, Michael Kim.

10:30 a.m.–Ted Potter Jr., Scott Piercy.

10:40 a.m.–Charles Howell III, Brice Garnett.

10:50 a.m.–Brandt Snedeker, Ian Poulter.

11 a.m.–Andrew Putnam, Andrew Landry.

11:10 a.m.–Marc Leishman, Patton Kizzire.

11:20 a.m.–Gary Woodland, Kevin Na.

11:30 a.m.–Aaron Wise, Paul Casey.

11:40 a.m.–Patrick Reed, Jon Rahm.

11:50 a.m.–Jason Day, Francesco Molinari.

Noon–Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele.

12:10 p.m.–Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson.

12:20 p.m.–Keegan Bradley, Brooks Koepka.

12:30 p.m.–Billy Horschel, Justin Thomas.

12:40 p.m.–Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson.

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