Talent, youth eager to kick-start 2018 at Tournament of Champions

By Derek Harper
Field Level Media

Thanks to the PGA Tour’s somewhat awkward “wrap-around schedule,” Patton Kizzire began the new year already atop the FedExCup Standings.

But for all intents and purposes, the 2017-18 PGA Tour schedule kicks off in earnest with this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Kapalua on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Kizzire is one of 14 players making their debuts in the invitational field reserved for winners on the PGA Tour the previous calendar year. Kizzire earned his ticket to Hawaii with his first career PGA Tour victory at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Mexico in November.

Kizzire hustled during the fall, earning more than $1.6 million in a five-tournament stretch while most of the marquee players in the world were enjoying extended layoffs after a grueling 2017 season.

When Kizzire tees off in the second group in the first round on Thursday, he will be doing so in a field stacked with elite players.

That includes Justin Thomas, who kicked off his career year in 2017 with a season-opening three-shot victory at Kapalua and ended it with player of the year honors. Thomas picked up his first career major title along the way at the PGA Championship, while Jordan Spieth notched the third leg of the grand slam at the British Open.

Spieth enters the week ranked No. 2 in the world golf rankings, just ahead of good buddy Thomas, Spain’s Jon Rahm and Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama – all of whom are 25 or younger. And they’re looking up at Dustin Johnson, the top-ranked player in the world who is almost an elder statesman by comparison at 33.

It all speaks to the depth of young talent across the globe in the sport. It has created a sense of excitement among the players, who know they can’t afford to take a step back with their games and hope to win with any regularity.

How fleeting success can be in the sport is evidenced by the fact only nine players in this week’s field qualified for the event last year.

“I think this year, 2018, the unknowns are very exciting right now,” said Spieth, who won this event in 2016 and finished third last year. “I think with the amount of depth and talent at a younger age mixed with the guys in their 30s that are playing… No. 1 in the world, D.J., what is he, 32 or something? Some other phenomenal players that you would call maybe in prime, right. And then, obviously, the major question, which is, what’s it going to be like with Tiger coming back.

“I think the overall view off the course, at least from my own and a lot of us younger players, is very exciting going into 2018.”

Tiger Woods is not in the field this week – he is ranked 656th as he plots his schedule for 2018 in his return from a fourth back surgery. But the top five players in the world rankings are, along with a slew of players who have their eyes on big 2018s.

Ryan Armour, another winner in the wrap-around season, is the oldest player in the field at 41. He will hit the opening tee shot on Thursday, and then it is off to the races for all 34 players in the field.

“I think 2018, these unknowns are extremely exciting starting out and within the next six months… it’s a pretty special time to be a part of professional golf,” Spieth said. “I feel that way. I’ll just set my goals like we do all the time and try and get out there and accomplish them year after year. And that’s when I sit here every single year, I’ve got my goals for the year that by this time that I’m certainly set out to tackle.”

–Derek Harper, Field Level Media

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