It is the time of the year when the presents have been opened, the big silver ball in Times Square has made its descent, and professional golf is ready to be put on display once again. My season got underway with my journey to paradise, the island of Maui, for the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Invitations for this PGA Tour stop are always hard to come by. There’s only one way to get into this field . . .be a winner. If you won a PGA Tour event, you punched your ticket into this elite field with a $1 million check at the end.
As I’m sure many of you know, Maui is a tropical paradise and part of the Hawaiian Islands chain, which, by the way, are the most remote islands in the world. There is no mainland within 2500 miles of these islands in any direction. Many resist experiencing the joys of Maui simply because they think it is too hard to get to. Obviously, I would have to disagree. I’ll have more on that later.
This winners-only event is played at the Plantation Course at Kapalua on the northwest end of Maui. While the ocean is just a stone’s throw away, the course itself is inland enough to be somewhat mountainous. The elevation changes are drastic and all lead down to the water. The views over the entire 18 holes are so spectacular and so magnificent that I contend you could play this course without even using a golf ball and still enjoy it. In fact, you might even enjoy it more, given that it’s a really difficult course.
It’s interesting to note that a quaint village just a few miles from the Kapalua Resort Plantation Course called Lahaina has a lot in common with Sag Harbor. Both Lahaina and Sag Harbor in the early 19th Century were noted as important whaling villages, they both have whaling museums, and both are home to sailboats and yachts, for those who can afford them. As an interesting note, Lahaina is also home to the largest Banyan tree in the United States, spanning 1.94 acres and rising over 60 feet high.
It really is hard to convey just how high the level of play on the PGA Tour and worldwide has reached. Gary Woodland, a very talented athlete, who was good enough to play college basketball, got to sleep on the 54-hole lead of three shots. How about taking a three-stroke lead to the first tee and then go out and fire a brilliant five under par round and lose? How did that happen? Well, a fine young player with a unique first name of Xander fired a nifty little 62 in the final round to win by one shot — that’s 11 under par on the only par 73 tournament course on Tour.
Officially, his name is Alexander Schauffele, but he goes by Xander. This kid can really play, and why not? Both his grandfathers played in the European Premier League (soccer). With his victory, this 25-year-old has now won four times on the PGA Tour in just three years. His most impressive win being the 2017 Tour Championship.
The Tournament of Champions has certainly had its share of title sponsors over the years, from Lincoln Mercury to Mercedes USA to Hyundai, but now this unique event seems to have landed the most ideal sponsor that it is likely ever to find, Sentry Insurance from Stevens Point, WI. It’s been amazing to witness how the ideal sponsor-fit can make such a big impact in the community. Sentry announced this week that the charitable giving part of the company supports United Way and to that end, it has given a nice donation to the Maui United Way. Another of its projects has to do with educating youngsters, so the other part of its announcement last week was it is creating four scholarships per year for Maui high school graduates who wish to further their education in the Hawaii University and Community College system. There’s no doubt it has have stayed true to its company values while embedding the company into the fabric of the Maui community. Sentry will add four scholarships per year for a total of three years which means 12 kids will be able to advance their education courtesy of Sentry Insurance . . . and all because of professional golf on Maui.
It is such a good fit for a tournament as a title sponsor that I have the feeling that Sentry will be around for quite a while. I have the same feeling about our winner, Xander Schauffele, who tied the course record with his 11 under par round of 62, even though he started his day five shots back and even bogeyed his first hole to trail by six. After that, it was all pure magic. Two eagles, seven birdies, and no dropped shots.
Incidentally, we begin this week with Justin Rose as the number one player in the world, replacing Brooks Koepka.
Oh, by the way, remember earlier when I said lots of people say Maui is way too difficult to get to? Well, in my book, Maui is a lot easier to get to than it is to leave.