We are now less than two weeks away from the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and excitement is reaching a fever pitch among golf fans. The event always kicks off the calendar year in style and Kapalua Resort on Maui is a beautiful spot for it.
Only players that won a title in 2017 qualify, meaning it is a truly elite competition pitting the very best players against one another. It means no Rory McIlroy, who finished 2017 winless, and no Tiger Woods, who is tipped for a comeback in 2018 but has not won a tournament for a long time.
However, a host of leading names are in contention, including 2017 champion Justin Thomas, world number one Dustin Johnson and 2016 winner Jordan Spieth. Players have until December 29 to declare for the tournament, but you would imagine they would all head to Hawaii as it is a prestigious event, the first-place money is north of $1 million and it is a nice place to spend a few days. Here are the leading contenders bidding for glory:
Thomas enjoyed a breakout year in 2017 and his win at Kapalua back in early January was the catalyst. He birdied the final two holes to edge out Hideku Matsuyama by three shots at The Plantation Course and that set him on the path to greatness.
A week later he won the Sony Open in Hawaii by seven shots and a broke a 72-hole course record in the process. It was another dominant showing and he then went on to win the first major of his career, the US PGA Championship, and end the season by scooping the FedEx Cup and Player of the Year title. Thomas clearly loves playing in Hawaii, so he will be among the frontrunners for the Tournament of Champions 2018, and he has already said he cannot wait to return to Kapalua.
Spieth roared back to form in 2017 and will finish the year as world number two after winning the third major of his career at The Open. However, he was slightly overshadowed by Thomas this year. The two are great friends and were always tipped for stardom, but Spieth developed quicker and shot to the top of the world rankings in 2015. Thomas has now caught up and finished just ahead of Spieth as the money leader for 2017, edged ahead of him to win the FedEx Cup and beat him to the 2017 Player of the Year award. It all started at the Tournament of Champions, when Spieth was in contention but ultimately could not keep up with the pace set by his friend and finished third. Now he will be desperate to reassert his dominance and he can start here.
Looking ahead to the first major of the year, the Masters at Augusta, Spieth is the $8 favourite in the US Masters odds and understandably so as he loves the course. As a rookie he almost won it in 2014 before Bubba Watson fought back on the final day, and then in 2015 he won it in emphatic fashion. He had a five-shot lead going into the back nine on the final day in 2016, only to suffer a monumental collapse. He underwhelmed this year, but that can be considered a blip. He will be the man to beat in 2018, and victory at the Tournament of Champions could set him on his way to further glory.
The man likely to start the Tournament of Champions as favourite is Johnson, the world number one. He missed part of 2017 through injury but still accumulated enough wins to extend his time at the top of the world rankings to 44 weeks and counting.
Johnson won four titles in 2017 and will finish the year third in terms of prize money after Thomas and Spieth. He won the Tournament of Champions in 2013, beating defending champion Steve Stricker by four strokes, and his supreme length off the tee makes him one of the best placed players to succeed on the par-73, 7,452-yard course.
One man to really pay close attention to going into the New Year is Olympic gold medal winner Justin Rose, who has secured T10 finishes in each of his last 10 tournaments. He is up to sixth in the world rankings and came close to winning a second major at the Masters, only to lose out to Sergio Garcia at the death. But Rose has unshakeable self-belief and the talent to back it up. He has great momentum at present and looks capable of winning this tournament comfortably.
Matsuyama finished second here last season and has been on an upward curve for a while now, still driven by the hunger that comes with seeking a maiden major victory. Ditto Rickie Fowler, and both men will be dangerous in this tournament. For a real long shot, Jhonattan Vegas is a rising star who has spoken about his love of this course and could put on a great show in early January.