Familiar place, unfamiliar faces at Kapalua to start year

KAPALUA, HAWAII (AP) — Xander Schauffele already is a footnote in PGA Tour history as the first player to post the lowest score in a stroke-play tournament without getting credit for the win.

He wouldn’t mind being another asterisk at Kapalua. No one has ever gone more than a year without winning and ended the drought at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Winning is the only way to get to Maui at the start of the year, so Schauffele and 15 other players ordinarily wouldn’t be here. Except that 2020 was no ordinary year.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the PGA Tour for three months, the winners-only field at Kapalua was expanded to include anyone who made it to the Tour Championship.

“I got an asterisk for winning the Tour Championship that counted in certain things and not in others,” Schauffele said. “I’m all about entering weird categories, I guess. This is what I do.”

Schauffele finished at 15-under 265 at the Tour Championship, the lowest score by three shots. But the FedEx Cup finale now has a staggered start based on the standings, and top seed Dustin Johnson (who started at 10-under par) was crowned the champion. Schauffele only received first-place world ranking points, but no trophy.

Xander Schauffele during a practice round prior to the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua Golf Club. PHOTO: AFP

Part of him believes he earned his spot at Kapalua. And part of him is just happy to be there.

“It’s called the Tournament of Champions. I’m fortunate and lucky to be here,” he said. “You should win to be here. It’s a bonus for winning. I always want to be here and we’ll do everything in our power to be here.”

The 42-man field is the largest in tournament history by adding players who reached the FedEx Cup finale, a list that includes two players — Scottie Scheffler and Abraham Ancer — who have never won on the PGA Tour.

Another addition is Billy Horschel, who would like to see the one-time criteria stay that way. Horschel said such a proposal has been presented to the Player Advisory Council.

“I think it’s good, something they should do permanently,” Horschel said.

He believes it would benefit the title sponsor, Wisconsin-based Sentry, along with the field next week in Honolulu. Horschel said the tour has crunched numbers and in a normal year, it would add eight to 10 players to Kapalua. He also said a reduction to three FedEx Cup playoff events makes it harder to reach East Lake, and those players should be rewarded.

Whether it goes any further than the PAC is doubtful.

The tour has contemplated an expanded field over the years, such as giving a two-year exemption to Kapalua for winning a tournament. Sentry, in its fourth year as the sponsor, likes the exclusivity of being the toughest field to make all year.