The PGA Tour once again kicks off its calendar year in paradise – the Hawaiian island of Maui at the Kapalua Resort’s renowned Plantation Course. Despite wildfires that impacted the area in 2023, the 2024 Sentry Tournament of Champions will go on as scheduled.
The no-cut event boasts an elite 39-player field comprised of the previous year’s tournament champions and top FedExCup finishers. Defending Sentry champion Jon Rahm departed the PGA Tour for LIV, but stars like Viktor Hovland, Max Homa, Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele will be on hand. The par-73 layout and Hawaii’s tropical breezes lend themselves to low scores, with the course record currently 61, shared by Justin Thomas, Matt Jones and Jon Rahm. Past champions also include Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Jordan Spieth. The 2024 edition tees off January 4th with a star-studded field chasing the $15 million purse and a place in Kapalua’s storied history.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the history of this event, some memorable moments, and take a lesson on playing in the wind, inspired by the conditions in Hawaii. We’ll recommend some further reading as and give you the full schedule, details and how to watch the event.
History and Sponsorship
The Sentry Tournament of Champions has been played annually since 1953, originally known as the Tournament of Champions. It was first held at the Desert Inn Country Club in Las Vegas until 1966, then moved to the Stardust Country Club in Las Vegas until 1998. In 1999, the tournament moved to its current location at the Kapalua Resort’s Plantation Course in Maui, Hawaii.
The event has had a long history of sponsors starting with Mutual of New York (MONY), Infinite, and most notably Mercedes-Benz from 1994-2009. In recent years, it was sponsored by Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), Hyundai, and now Sentry Insurance, who recently extended through 2035.
The tournament invites PGA Tour winners from the previous calendar year to participate, making it a winners-only event for much of its history. In 2021, eligibility was expanded to include the top 30 players from the previous season’s FedExCup standings, in addition to tournament winners. This was made permanent starting in 2023 to bolster the field size and star power. The elevated status and $15 million purse established in 2023 attracted 17 of the world’s top 20 golfers this year.
The format is a 72-hole stroke play event with no cut, played over four days. The field consists of 39 players grouped in twosomes that are repaired after each round based on scores. A sudden-death playoff is used to settle any ties after regulation play, starting at the 18th hole. The playoff continues hole-by-hole until a winner emerges.
Maui and Kapalua
The PGA Tour first moved its season opening tournament to Hawaii in 1999 with the debut of the Mercedes Championships (now called The Sentry Tournament of Champions) at the Plantation Course at Kapalua on Maui. The decision was made to start the season in Hawaii due to the ideal warm weather and playing conditions that allow more golf to be played in January compared to most of the cold and snowy mainland US.
Hawaii had also established itself as a world-class golf destination that attracted tourists, making it a natural location for a PGA Tour event. Starting the season in Hawaii aligned with the Tour’s motivation to expand its reach and brand through destinations like Hawaii that offered stunning natural beauty and views well-suited for television. After over 20 years, Hawaii has become a PGA Tour tradition as the host site to kick off each new season.
The Plantation Course was designed by renowned golf architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, and built in 1991 on the slopes of the West Maui Mountains in Hawaii. It was constructed on land that was formerly used as a pineapple plantation, as indicated by the pine trees and old pineapple plants still dotting the course. The signature hole is the par-5 18th, measuring a lengthy 663 yards from the tips.
The par 73, 7,411 yard course was designed to embrace the natural landscape, with steep fairways rolling down to wide greens overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was the third course built at the Kapalua Resort, joining the Bay Course and the Village Course.
The inaugural Kapalua event in 1999 saw David Duval shoot rounds of 67-63-68-68 for a total score of 266 to set the tournament scoring record at the time. Duval went on to become world #1 later that year during a hot streak launched in part by this victory, and capped with a 59 and 9 stroke win at the Bob Hope.
The following year featured an epic duel between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, who matched eagles on the 72nd hole to force a playoff. Woods prevailed with a dramatic 40-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole for his fifth straight win, in what is probably the most memorable finish of this event. After the event, the AP headline was “Even by Maui’s standards, Tiger Woods is riding an incredible wave. And there’s no indication he’s about to get knocked off.”
More recently in 2022, Camerson Smith shot -34 to break the scoring record. In 2023, Jon Rahm authored a historic comeback victory after trailing Collin Morikawa by seven shots with nine holes to play on Sunday. Rahm shot a blistering 10-under par 63, making nine birdies and an eagle to erase the deficit. His victory marked the second largest final round comeback on the PGA Tour since 1983.
Between Duval’s 1999 performance, the Woods-Els playoff, Smith’s record score, and Rahm’s incredible rally, the “Tournament of Champions” has seen no shortage of memorable golf over the years in Maui.
Lesson – the “Wind Fighting Wedge”
In our post on Tom Watson, we introduced the concept of hitting to “goalposts,” and then moving those goalposts to account for windy conditions insoired by Watson’s book “The Timeless Swing,” and his experiences at The Open Championship.
Also useful in windy condition is a low, spinning wedge shot with a more penetrating trajectory. This is an important shot to have in the bag when playing in Hawaii or any windy conditions. Practicing this type of shot can improve your scoring by eliminating approaches that ballloon and fall short of the target.
- Setting up properly is key for this type of shot. Start by putting your weight slightly forward at address. Using alignment sticks is a great way to ensure a good setup.
- Play the ball back in your stance a bit more than a normal wedge shot, and stand with your feet closer together to help control the trajectory. Take your normal backswing, being mindful of the target.
- As you start down, it’s important to stay balanced and centered. Swing to the target and naturally release the club, rotating freely through impact. As always, the goal is to strike the ball just before you take a divot so that you make crisp contact. You can practice this with a Divot Board, even without a ball.
- Follow through completely by extending your arms in front of your now-rotated body, toward the target. Your weight will have shifted forward onto your lead foot. Making solid contact and releasing fully through the ball is what maximizes backspin and keeps he shot on a penetrating trajectory.
Golf Courses of Hawaii
by Tom Ramsey
Summary: The book features professional photographs of Hawaii’s beautiful golf courses, bringing pleasure to readers’ eyes with the stunning vistas. The images give new meaning to the word “awesome” by capturing the courses’ beauty, nuance, power and delicacy. It includes a list of favorite Hawaiian golf spots that will always rank at or near the top destinations for their spectacular ocean and mountain views.3 Originally published in 1991, the large-format hardcover book remains a top pictorial guide to Hawaii’s most scenic golf layouts.
Maui Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook
by Andrew Doughty
Summary: The finest guidebook ever written for Maui. Now you can plan your best vacation–ever. This all new tenth edition is a candid, humorous guide to everything there is to see and do on the island. Best-selling author and longtime Hawai’i resident, Andrew Doughty, unlocks the secrets of an island so lush and diverse that many visitors never realize all that it has to offer. Explore with him as he reveals breathtaking trails, secluded beaches, pristine reefs, delicious places to eat, colorful craters, hidden waterfalls and so much more. Every restaurant, activity provider, business and resort is reviewed personally and anonymously. This book and a rental car are all you need to discover what makes Maui so exciting.
The Golf Fanatic’s Guide to Hawaii
by Bryan Fryklund
Summary: The Golf Fanatic’s Guide to Hawaii is a comprehensive guidebook for golfers visiting Hawaii. Featuring color photography on every page and a sophisticated layout, the enticing coverage of the top 50 publicly accessible courses in the Aloha State will excite first-timers and return visitors alike. A former resident of Maui and the Big Island, guidebook author and avid golfer Bryan Fryklund (Adventure Guide: Hawaii the Big Island) traveled to six islands, playing each course and rating its difficulty, beauty, design intrigue, maintenance, “swank value”; and price.
He describes each course, specific holes that personify the experience, and the “19th hole,” interviews a course representative for playing tips, provides driving directions, and reviews nearby accommodation options. With candor and humor, Fryklund inserts local color into his course descriptions and sidebars, which range from explanations of golf terms such as “links golf” to insights into Hawaiian mythology. Golf Fanatic will be an invaluable tool on the Hawaiian courses, and a treasured souvenir after returning home.