Rickie Fowler can get new year off to a flying start in Hawaii
THERE are certainly worse ways to blow away the cobwebs and the post-Christmas blues than a few rounds of golf in Hawaii.
And many of the leading lights on the PGA Tour clearly agree, as a star-studded field has assembled for the 2018 curtain-raiser, the Sentry Tournament of Champions, on the island of Maui.
The Plantation Course at Kapalua has become a firm favourite for certain players since it came onto the scene in 1999, and it is traditionally the easiest course of the year in terms of birdies.
Only players who won on the PGA Tour last year are eligible for this event, with 34 of the 37 players invited taking the opportunity to fine-tune their game after the festive period.
Only a trio of Europeans – Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson – give it a miss, but their absence hardly detracts from the quality of the field.
Open champion Jordan Spieth has lined his pockets in Kapalua in recent seasons and is back for more this time.
The Texan won here by eight shots with a 30-under total in 2016, was second in 2014 and tied for third as his big friend Justin Thomas took the title this time last year.
Spieth and Thomas are generally joint-favourites at 6/1 this week, and it is not hard to see why.
The Plantation Course is a sprawling layout and on the face of it is very long but the massive elevation changes mean it doesn't play as long as the card suggests and the huge greens often ensure it comes down to a putting competition.
It is little wonder then that Spieth has excelled here, with his magical touch on the greens showing no sign of dissipating.
All of the players may well come in a little under-cooked after the break, but Spieth has played even less than almost all of his peers and that might just count against him this week.
He has only played once on the PGA Tour since the Tour Championship at the end of September, although he did finish third on that outing, at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas at the stsrt of last month.
Thomas also played in that one, finishing 11th of the 18 players, and he will know the benefit of getting off to a winning start to the year, having followed victory here 12 months ago with four more wins before 2017 was out, collecting the US PGA Championship and the FedEx Cup along the way.
Like Spieth, he should go well again, but my slight preference is for Rickie Fowler, who is next in the betting alongside Dustin Johnson at 7/1 generally.
Fowler gave this column a winning end to the last golfing year by claiming victory in the Hero World Challenge, an event played on a coastal course with fresh winds blowing in from the ocean.
While Kapalua is a long way away from the Bahamas, many of the same skills will be required, with the winds the main protection for the course.
Fowler has proven himself to be a specialist in gusty conditions and has every possible shot in the locker, while he is also one of the best putters in the world, which should serve him well.
He has a couple of good results in Kapalua to his credit as well, finishing fifth in 2016 and sixth three years before that, so he ticks lots of the boxes and is definitely worth a bet at the 7/1.
The same applies to Hideki Matuyama, who was the favourite for this event 12 months ago and very nearly lived up to that billing, finishing second to Thomas.
The Japanese superstar was in the middle of a sparkling run of golf at that stage, and while he dropped off a bit as 2017 went on, the world number five returns to Hawaii in decent form, having finished fifth in each of his last two events, the Hero World Challenge and the Dunlop Phoenix in his homeland.
As well as that runner-up finish last term, Matsuyama was third here in 2015 and will be keen to hit the ground running.
And at odds of 12/1 with Boylesports has has to be backed each-way at the very least with most firms paying out on the first five places.
Finally, I'll put up Marc Leishman at 22/1.
The Aussie has only played in this event once, when finishing in mid-field in 2013, but he should relish the challenge having grown up playing in high winds on sand-belt courses around Melbourne.
Leishman climbed to 12th in the world in 2017 after winning twice and he has finished in the top four in four of his last six events, including a victory in the BMW Championship during the FedEx play-offs.
A top-class performer, it would be no surprise to see him go well this week and throughout the season, so the 22/1 generally on offer makes him an attractive each-way proposition.
It should be an entertaining and birdie-laden start to the year, and hopefully we can pick up where we left off last year by getting a winner.
Rickie Fowler, 7/1 (General)
Hideki Matsuyama, e/w, 12/1 (Boylesports)
Marc Leishman, e/w, 22/1 (General)
THE Premier League's big clubs have the FA Cup well down their list of priorities these days, but that hasn't stopped them dominating in recent times.
Only Wigan Athletic and Portsmouth have broken up the elite's monopoly of the competition this century, with the fact it isn't taken as seriously as it used to be actually playing into the hands of the big guns.
With every top flight manager, and a fair few in the Championship, putting out severely weakened sides in the early stages, those clubs with the best squads are always going to rise to the top, and never was that more evident than last term when Arsenal beat Chelsea in the final, with Tottenham and Manchester City the losing semi-finalists.
This year's third round gets off to a rip-roaring start on Friday night when Liverpool host Everton. It's a proper heavyweight clash that means it is hard to tip either of them to win the competition outright at this stage.
Pep Guardiola's Man City are no bigger than 4/1 favourites and they clearly have the quality to sweep all-comers aside, although they could've asked for an easier opener than a home tie with Burnley.
Chelsea and Man United can both be backed at 13/2 in places, with Tottenham general 8/1 shots and Liverpool and holders Arsenal both available at 10/1.
The Gunners have won three of the last four renewals and Arsene Wenger certainly values the cup so it would be no shock to see them go well again, but the continued uncertainty around Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil could undermine the second half of their season.
A case can be made for any of the top six, although Spurs might just be the bet at 8/1.
Mauricio Pochettino's boys start with an easy game at home to Wimbledon and while luck of the draw will be required from then on, they are more than capable of beating anyone, especially with Harry Kane in flying form.
While the league and Champions League are clearly the priority for Pochettino, he will still put a good side out and the further they go, the more Kane and company will feature, so they look decent value at the 8/1.
Outside of the giants, the focus should be on top flight clubs who are safe from relegation, which leaves us with Burnley, Leicester and Everton.
The third round draw has not been kind to the Toffees or Sean Dyche's men, so Claude Puel's Foxes might be good each-way contenders at 28/1 with Tommy French.
Puel has got his side playing to the strengths that won the Premier League two years ago, with Riyad Mahrez in fine form again.
They are a match for most at their best, while Puel has shown his cup pedigree by getting Southampton to the League Cup final last term.
Leicester also have a decent squad and start off with a soft-looking clash with Fleetwood, so that 28/1 does look very appealing.
Tottenham Hotspur, 8/1 (General)
Leicester City, e/w, 28/1 (Tommy French)