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A very different Tournament of Champions could lead to change

Harris English pumps his first after sinking a birdie putt on the Kapalua Plantation Course’s 18th hole to win a playoff in the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Sunday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

KAPALUA — As the PGA Tour island-hops to Oahu this week, the 23rd edition of the Sentry Tournament of Champions at the Kapalua Plantation Course appears to have left a lasting legacy.

The event that began in 1953 in California had its largest field ever, with 42 players who all finished under par on a course that drew raves from all who were asked.

The event was different from any ever held on Maui because of the restrictions and protocols required due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In terms of getting it done and how we feel, it starts with our team,” executive director Alex Urban said. “The entire operation of the event couldn’t be done without the amazing efforts of everyone on our team.”

The early television ratings were solid and the competition throughout the week was intriguing before Harris English finished an impressive run to the title, winning a playoff against Joaquin Niemann for his first victory on tour since 2013.

“I’m a big golf fan and I watch every week,” Urban said. “Harris English is such a likable guy — it’s been so long since he’s won — it was really cool to see him (win), especially under the pressure of a playoff. Winning on the PGA Tour is not easy — that’s what makes the field so special.”

The event, which usually requires a win from the previous calendar year to qualify for, was boosted this season by 16 players who did not win in 2020 because 11 tournaments were canceled by the pandemic.

Those players came from the 30 who made it to the Tour Championship at the end of the season — 16 of the 17 additional eligible players this year made the trip, including world No. 6 Xander Schauffele, the 2019 champion here who finished tied for fifth this year.

It is yet to be determined if the tour will decide to make the change permanent — Urban said a decision is months away and will be made by the tour itself — but it certainly added to what has to be labeled as the deepest field ever here.

“It’s just one of those things, we’ll play it by ear and either way definitely we’ll have an incredible field,” Urban said.

English would not have been here without the exemption, but as the first winner of 2021 he knows he will be back.

“Obviously, yes. I saw that — I think they came out with that change right when we came back to play at Colonial. And year after year my goal’s to make the Tour Championship,” said English, a University of Georgia graduate. “Obviously getting back to East Lake — I went to school in Athens, I love staying in Atlanta, but that was just icing on the cake of getting back to the Tournament of Champions and I kind of felt lucky to be here.”

Mark Rolfing, a Kapalua resident and analyst for The Golf Channel and NBC, is not in favor of keeping the Tour Championship exemption, a change in stance from several years ago.

“I’m a guy who 10 years ago was screaming for expanding the eligibility list, but I don’t think that would be the best thing now because I really think this event has turned the corner,” said Rolfing, whose unofficial Isuzu Kapalua International played in the 1980s and ’90s laid the foundation for this event to start here in 1999.

“I talked to a number of players about it this week — probably half the field — and it was a big majority that feels it should be winners only,” Rolfing said Monday.

Only three players eligible for this year’s event decided not to come, and all 42 who played made it to the finish line under the strict COVID-19 regulations.

“I think everybody believes that guys are not going to skip this tournament anymore like they did for a while there,” Rolfing said. “I think I’m now in the camp of let’s have it be winners only. I think this particular tournament was the benchmark tournament — this is the one that I think forever will change the Sentry Tournament of Champions.”

Several notable players returned to the event after long absences — Sergio Garcia finished tied for 11th after a 15-year absence, Stewart Cink tied for 31st after not being here in 11 years, and the first two Mexican players to compete in the event since the 1970s, Abraham Ancer and Carlos Ortiz, were part of the festivities.

Despite attendance being extremely limited due to COVID-19 protocols, Urban is hopeful that the event’s charity donations will come close to last year’s number of more than $459,000.

The Sentry Insurance Foundation made an additional $200,000 donation to the Maui United Way in May and last week gave $250,000 to the Maui Food Bank to help the island with pandemic relief.

“The charity donations are the No. 1 thing we do, every year,” Urban said.

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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