LAHAINA, HAWAII | Lanto Griffin – he’s No. 3 in the FedEx Cup standings as the sun rises on the 2020 PGA Tour schedule – knew all about the Plantation Course at Kapalua long before he arrived on Maui for the first time with his mother and brothers in tow. One of 15 first-timers in the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Griffin spent hours playing this mountainside golf course on the Tiger Woods video game, hoping but never fully expecting to play in the winners-only event that kicks off the calendar year.
Now that Griffin is here, well, reality again trumps technology.
“I remember playing it on Tiger Woods a lot, and just the stage, being right around New Year’s, the first of the year. In Virginia the weather was cold, school was off. I feel like this is a tournament I’ve watched probably maybe other than the Masters, maybe the most,” said Griffin, who qualified by winning the Houston Open last fall.
“To be here and see how wide the fairways are in person and the views, every hole the views are mind-boggling. It’s been really cool to be on site and be part of this tournament.”
The Plantation Course, freshened up since last season with rebuilt greens, some reshaped bunkers and a handful of new tees to counteract the steady creep of distance gains, gives the Sentry Tournament of Champions much of its personality and panache.
It’s like something from the movie magicians at DreamWorks, climbing and spilling across a Maui mountain, trade winds blowing and bougainvillea blooming with holes that tumble like black diamond ski slopes toward the azure ocean below.
“It’s been kind of weird. This is kind of the first tournament walking in, and Xander (Schauffele) and Dustin Johnson saying hi and stuff like that, for a guy like me it’s a little different than the Korn Ferry Tour and all the other PGA Tour events I’ve played in.” – Lanto Griffin
A spot at Kapalua is one of the ancillary prizes that comes with winning a PGA Tour event and for the 15 first-timers here this week, it’s a stamp of validation alongside the two-year exemption that victories earn.
It would seem an automatic trip for any player who qualifies but that’s not been the case every year, particularly this year. Among the absent qualifiers are Brooks Koepka (whose return date from knee issues is still uncertain), Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Francesco Molinari, each of whom opted to pass on the guaranteed money, world-ranking points and post-holiday luxury at the nearby Ritz-Carlton with its open-air lobby and cascading porches pointed at the Pacific.
For players such as Griffin, Dylan Frittelli, Tyler Duncan, Adam Long, Martin Trainer and Nate Lashley, this is part of their new professional lives, a ticket that can’t be bought, only earned.
“It’s been kind of weird,” Griffin said. “This is kind of the first tournament walking in, and Xander (Schauffele) and Dustin Johnson saying hi and stuff like that, for a guy like me it’s a little different than the Korn Ferry Tour and all the other PGA Tour events I’ve played in. This is kind of the first week it’s kind of sunk in that I really did win and my life is a little different now.”
Collin Morikawa, who won the Barracuda Championship, is the grandson of Maui natives and has spent enough time in the islands to feel at home. He’s been to the Tournament of Champions before but this time he is inside the ropes.
“A few years ago when we came … when we saw the courtesy cars with the sticker slapped on the side that said Sentry Tournament of Champions, I thought it was really cool because I was kind of in awe, like oh, you know, there’s a player somewhere around here, and maybe one day I’m going to be that player, and it happens this year that I’m over here with a courtesy car driving around whether it be Lahaina, Sun Street, whatever, and I’m one of those players now,” Morikawa said.
J.T. Poston, who won the Wyndham Championship, flew out on Dec. 26 with his family to get the full Hawaii experience. They went whale watching and took a helicopter tour around Maui.
Max Homa, winner of the Wells Fargo Championship, had a similar itinerary, seeing about a dozen whales up close and buzzing Molokai in a chopper with his wife, staring down at the waterfalls and cliffs.
“Very cool,” Homa said.
How many of the first-timers will return next year remains to be seen. For some, their victories were like random lightning strikes. Trainer, for example, won the Puerto Rico Open last February and has made the cut in just three of 21 subsequent starts. The good news is Trainer’s streak of 14 consecutive missed cuts, which was preceded by a withdrawal and another missed cut prior to that, will end this week because there is no cut.
For others such as Matthew Wolff and Morikawa, their immediate success as rookies suggests Maui could become a regular part of their playing schedules.
It’s different this week. It’s a small field and whether it’s the time of year or the setting, this event has a rounded edge rather than a sharp one. Full-field events will start next week at the Sony Open in Honolulu. Things will get back to normal.
Someone will earn the first spot in next year’s Sentry Tournament of Champions this week.
“I’d love to start my year here every year,” Poston said.
So would nearly every other player.
Lanto Griffin tees off on the first tee during the first round of the Sentry Tournament Of Champions at the Kapalua Plantation Course. Photo: Cliff Hawkins, Getty Images
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