Sentry Tournament of Champions preview: Justin Thomas back in Hawaii to defend title

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Thomas won both tournaments in Hawaii last year en route to a Player of the Year season.

Sentry Tournament of Champions preview: Justin Thomas back in Hawaii to defend title

Thomas won both tournaments in Hawaii last year en route to a Player of the Year season.

After a short layoff, golf is back.

The Sentry Tournament of Champions ushers in a new year of golf, with last year's Player of the Year Justin Thomas back to defend his title. Thomas won five times in 2017, beginning with a three-shot victory here.

The 2017-18 season is already underway, but there's still something exciting about Hawaii swing, which used to signify the start of a new season.

The Course

The Plantation Course at Kapalua offers a vast array of splendid views and challenging approach shots. Players often find birdies easy to find thanks to mostly flat greens and wide fairways, but the course plays long.

Perhaps the most beautiful hole, the signature 18th — a 663-yard par 5 — offers players a chance to pick up a late birdie. But trouble all down the left-hand side makes it a tough risk-reward hole.

Favorites

Thomas enters as the favorite after dazzling in 2017. He emerged as a true top-5 player with improved putting and short game stats to match his length off the tee. Thomas already has a win this season, so he should be in excellent form.

Rickie Fowler won the Hero World Challenge last month, defeating an elite field in the exhibition event. Fowler won just one official event last year (Honda Classic), but he was always on the top page of the leaderboard.

Dustin Johnson, the world's top-ranked player, has played just twice since last season's Tour Championship, but he's a former winner here that can take advantage of the long par 4s and 5s. Johnson may be a tad rusty, but nothing really seems to bother him.

Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama, top-5 players in the world, are also set to contend this week.

Sleepers

Kyle Stanley returned to form last year, picking up his first win since 2012, while climbing back into the top 50 in the world ranking. He also finished t-5 at the WGC event in November, proving he can contend in the biggest tournaments.

For those that stopped following golf after the Tour Championship, let us catch you up on Cameron Smith. The 24-year-old Australian racked up four straight top-5 finishes to end 2017, including a win at the Australian PGA Championship. He could be in for a monster year.

Horse for the Course

Few courses are safe when Jordan Spieth is in the field, but he's been especially lethal at Kapalua, finishing with three top-3 finishes in the last four years. Spieth won here in 2016, finished second in 2014, and t-3 last year.

Spieth's driving accuracy isn't an issue here because the fairways are so wide. He then gets to attack the flags from the fairway, and few in the game can hang with him when his iron game is precise.

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