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Tuesday, 20 November, 2018

Fowler and Spieth set for thrilling Hawaii duel

Russell Henley can challenge the big names

Rickie Fowler in action at the Hero World Challenge in December
1 of 1

Sky Sports Golf, 11pm Thursday

Palmer's top tip
Rickie Fowler 15-2
The season ahead should be a massive one for Rickie Fowler, a four-time US Tour winner ready to make the step up to Major champion, and a glorious 2018 campaign can kick off with victory at the Plantation Course in Hawaii.

Fowler is without technical weakness and can approach the new year worry-free. Every department of his game is in excellent order and he signed off for 2017 with a breathtaking 11-under-par final-round 61 in the Hero World Challenge.

Fowler opened up with seven consecutive birdies in that Hero masterclass, turning a seven-shot deficit into a four-shot triumph, destroying a small but elite field. The 29-year-old Californian could boss a similar event this week.

Zach Johnson did the Hero and Tournament of Champions double in 2014, and every Kapalua winner since had arrived carrying strong pre-Christmas form. Patrick Reed was third in the Hero before winning the ToC in 2015, then Jordan Spieth romped to Plantation Course glory in 2016. Spieth was fourth in the Hero prior, soon after winning the Tour Championship.

Justin Thomas finished fourth in his final event of 2016 (the Dunlop Phoenix), having won the CIMB Classic a month earlier, then started the new year with a ToC triumph. Just behind him was Hero champ Hideki Matsuyama, who nearly repeated the feat of Zach Johnson.

The calendars have switched, but punters should not read too much into the short Christmas break. Having your A-game in December means you will probably be in possession of it in January, too, so Fowler has a golden opportunity for back-to-back success.

Fowler has tackled this track twice before, finishing sixth in 2013 and fifth in 2016. Expect further improvement from a man slowly but surely increasing in self-belief. The course sets up perfectly for him – he is powerful enough to handle the yardage, comfortable in the wind which typically blows in Hawaii, and his exceptional putting stroke can be shown off on the enormous Kapalua greens.

Fowler got to Hawaii early, posing for pictures with Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas on December 29, so there is no reason why he should not hit the ground running. Fowler is loving life with his model girlfriend Allison Stoke and the pair could have another trophy to polish together on Sunday.

Next best
Jordan Spieth 6-1
The biggest challenge for Fowler this week is defeating Spieth, who carded a staggering 30-under-par total en route to an eight-shot triumph two years ago. That performance followed a runner-up effort on his Kapalua debut – Zach Johnson beat him by a shot – and Spieth closed with a 65 to tie for third place on his title defence 12 months ago.

Course form figures of 2-1-3 mean the Plantation Course is up there with Augusta on the list of Spieth's favourite playgrounds. He can boast a stroke average of 67.67 on the par-73 layout, the Texan appreciating the room off the tee and relishing the trade winds. This is a track where his incredible short-game skills count for more than usual.

Spieth was in solid nick prior to the Christmas break, posting a top-eight finish in each of his final six events, closing with third place in the Hero. The Open champion got engaged to his childhood sweetheart on Christmas Eve and will be further boosted by the return of his regular caddie, Michael Greller, who was on paternity leave for the Australian Open and the Hero.

The new fiance and new father are bursting with positive vibes and should combine to great effect on a course where they embarrassed the opposition in 2016.

Other selection
Russell Henley 50-1
Fowler and Spieth, two of the best players in the world, could serve up a thrilling Sunday duel to get the new year off to a flyer. Russell Henley, though, may also have a say in matters at a much bigger price. With four or five places up for grabs in a 34-runner field containing plenty of chaff, Henley looks well capable of delivering an each-way return.

Henley is one of the best putters in the business, a key asset aboard the largest greens on the circuit, and he finished third at Kapalua in 2015, just a shot outside of the playoff. This is his first crack at the winners-only event since, a three-shot Houston Open triumph booking his ticket to Hawaii, where he won his maiden US Tour title in the 2013 Sony Open.

Henley was 24 under par for that Sony triumph, looking like a rookie on his way to superstardom, and the 28-year-old remains full of potential for great things. Another of his three US Tour victories came in a breeze at the 2014 Honda Classic and the Kiawah Island-based pro has all the tools required for success at a windswept Plantation Course. He was third in the Tour Championship in September and has not missed a cut since June.

Others to note
Justin Thomas
The main danger to Fowler and Spieth is their friend Thomas, who won five times last year, starting with the ToC. Can the Player of the Year back up that career-best season?

Dustin Johnson
The world number one was 2013 ToC champion, but that was a weather-reduced three-round affair and his course record is otherwise unimpressive. A potential winner, but others preferred.

Marc Leishman
Australians dominated this event from 2004 to 2010, taking five titles, and Leishman, twice a US Tour champ in 2017, is capable of flying the Oz flag in Hawaii again.

Brendan Steele
The 2011 Texas Open winner is proven in a breeze and he successfully defended his Safeway Open crown in October. Tied for sixth at Kapalua last year and could threaten a place.

Jon Rahm
The brilliant youngster boasts the power and touch to destroy the Plantation Course over time, but must be left alone on his first visit to this quirky design, where debutants have a poor record.

Brooks Koepka
The powerhouse was third on his only previous Kapalua start and has become a Major champion since, but finished last in the Hero and was nursing a sore wrist over Christmas.

Staking plan
R Fowler
4pts 15-2 BetBright
J Spieth
4pts 6-1 BetBright
R Henley
1pt each-way 50-1 bet365, Betfred


The lowdown

Course Plantation Course at Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii
Prize money $6.3m ($1.22m to the winner)
Length 7,452 yards Par 73 Field 34

Course records – 72 holes 261 Ernie Els (2003) 18 holes 62 KJ Choi (2003), Graeme McDowell (2011), Jason Day (2015), Chris Kirk (2015)

Course winners taking part Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas

When to bet By 9pm Thursday night
Where to watch Live on Sky Sports Golf from 11pm Thursday
Time difference Hawaii is ten hours behind the UK and Ireland

Course overview Kapalua is the traditional home of the US Tour curtain-raiser and a power-hitter's paradise.

The fairways are like runways and the layout provides the perfect place to blow off the Christmas cobwebs.

There are only three par-threes and this whopper boasts seven holes longer than 500 yards. The 663-yard closing hole is a serious test of strength on a track which has the largest greens on the circuit.

Story of last year Justin Thomas held a five-shot advantage with five holes to play, but an eagle from Hideki Matsuyama at the 14th followed by a double-bogey at the 15th for Thomas cut the lead to just one. Thomas recovered with a brilliant birdie at the 17th and won by three shots.

Weather forecast Sunny for the most part, with the occasional light shower over the first two days. Moderate breezes all week, with winds peaking on Sunday.

Type of player suited to challenge The roll-call of past winners shows how powerhouses can flourish at Kapalua. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Geoff Ogilvy, Dustin Johnson and, last year, Justin Thomas, all used considerable length off the tee on this wide-open terrain.

Some recent champions, though, like Steve Stricker, Zach Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed have shown that superb short-game work may be even more important. Large, undulating, often windswept greens make scrambling difficult.

Key attribute Touch


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Fowler is without technical weakness and can approach the new year worry-free
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