Maybe it's because of the holiday layoff, but seemingly every year a handful of really interesting stories emerge from the two-tournament PGA Tour stop in Hawaii. The events -- the Tournament of Champions at meaty Kapalua and the Sony Open at tiny Waialae Country Club -- could not be more different aesthetically, and yet we normally get some sort of feel for how at least some of the rest of the year is going to go for some of the players involved.
In 2017, Justin Thomas won both events, and he went on to win his first major as well as the FedEx Cup and five total tournaments on the PGA Tour. The year before that, Jordan Spieth won the Tournament of Champions by eight, which was foreshadowing for the position he would soon be in at Augusta National, where he led by five going to the back nine before his epic collapse. Even last year, Cameron Smith won the Sony Open, carried it throughout the year and eventually finished T2 at the Masters in November.
Those are the most obvious stories, but there are more nuanced examples, too. Before we move forward with The American Express this week back on the mainland, let's look at some of the winners and losers from Hawaii and consider what it means for the rest of 2021.
Joaquin Niemann: Two weeks ago at this time, Niemann -- then the 45th-ranked golfer in the world -- was considered to be a good young player. Now? After a pair of runner-up finishes, he's ranked No. 25, which has reminded folks of the reality that he just turned 22, and the ceiling has still not been constructed on the rest of his career. The final tally from his playoff loss to Harris English and one-stroke defeat to Kevin Na: 50 birdies, 2 eagles and 21.2 strokes gained against two quality fields. Verdict: Winner
Justin Thomas: On Friday night at Kapalua, J.T. went to bed a few back of the lead and sitting at 11 under at a course where he'd won twice before. It felt like he was going to start 2021 the way he started 2020 and continue his preposterous trajectory by winning for the 14th time in his career. Then Saturday happened. Thomas muttered a homophobic slur to himself, which was picked up my microphones nearby, and despite a contrite apology, he was later dropped by his apparel sponsor, Ralph Lauren. J.T. is self-aware and smart enough that this will likely be a legitimate moment of change, growth and maturity -- which for all of us is often a bigger win than actually hoisting a trophy -- but he has to be bummed about the way 2021 has started. Verdict: Both
Hideki Matsuyama: The No. 20 player in the world technically played the weekend at both events, but his putter has maybe never been worse for a two-tournament stretch (which is saying something). He finished second to last at Kapalua and T19 at Waialae, but he lost -- are you ready for this? -- over 13 strokes on the greens over the course of eight rounds. To contextualize that, Matsuyama lost just 29 strokes all last season over the course of 74 rounds. Verdict: Loser
Scores: The scoring at both tournaments was out of control with scoring averages dipping well below 70 to start the year. While both fields were stronger than normal, this is not my favorite version of what professional golf could be. Kapalua was long but quite soft, and Waialae was the opposite, short and mildly firm. Neither track offered much of a test of skill against the best in the world, which continues to be a theme as the ball goes farther than ever and folks setting up the courses are either unwilling or incapable of providing a strong test for the best golfers in the world. Verdict: Loser
Chris Kirk: His story of recovery from alcoholism is incredibly encouraging, and a T2 finish at the Sony Open on Sunday on his last start on a medical exemption allowed him to keep his card. A medical exemption means you have a certain number of starts to rack up a certain number of FedEx Cup points to retain your PGA Tour card. In Kirk's case, he needed 148.9 FedEx Cup points at the Sony and netted 245. I loved hearing his perspective after closing with his fourth straight 65.
"I think that there were a number of years there where I just wasn't very happy with who I was and what I was doing, and I was just kind of trying to hide from that," Kirk said. "I chose alcohol to kind of get me away from where I was. You know, a lot of lying and hiding and the life that you live in that situation. But I think the biggest perspective for me is like I was saying, I can wake up every day and I'm happy that I am who I am, and I have nothing to hide. You know, I just feel like I'm doing the best I can and enjoying life. It's as simple as that." Verdict: Winner
Collin Morikawa: I had some questions about him after he finished 2020 with just one top 10 on the PGA Tour following his victory at the PGA Championship at Harding Park, but he answered all of them resoundingly with a pair of T7s in Hawaii. Morikawa made 50 birdies total at the two venues and gained nearly a stroke and a half per round with his approach shots, which is certainly his bread and butter. While I think the career is going to be spectacular, I was beginning to waffle on what 2021 might look like, but he quelled any concerns with a nice eight-round showing on two very different tracks. Verdict: Winner