Martin Laird hoping Hawaii event brings out best in him once again
It’s “aloha” for Martin Laird for the first time in seven years at Kapalua in Hawaii this week as he takes his place in a star-studded field for the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions.
“It means I did something right last year!” the 38-year-old told The Scotsman of securing his spot in the traditional curtain-raiser to the new golfing year on the back of claiming a fourth victory on the US circuit in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas in October.
Held on the island of Maui and boasting a $6.7 million prize pot, the tournament is traditionally a winners-only field from the previous calendar year, but the eligibility criteria has been altered for the 2021 edition.
On this occasion, the field has also been opened up to include any player who qualified for the 2020 Tour Championship, creating a record field of 42 players after an additional 16 were added through the amended criteria.
Eight of the world’s top 10 have made the journey, the mouth-watering line up being spearheaded by top-ranked Dustin Johnson, who is playing for the first time since his impressive Masters victory in November.
He’s joined by Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas, the world No 2 and No 3 respectively, with US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa, Webb Simpson and Patrick Cantlay making up that group of world ranking high flyers.
“It’s always nice to come to Hawaii and especially here to Kapalua to start the 2021 season,” said Laird, who is making his fourth appearance at the Plantation Course. “Not quite the same coming here solo without the family, but I am still really enjoying being here and getting ready to go.
“You know when you are in a field of tournament winners and top 30 FedEx Cup finishers it is going to be strong. It is always nice to play in smaller field events and test yourself against the best players.”
Thomas is the defending champion, having also landed the title in 2017, while Johnson was the winner in 2018. Laird didn’t even get a mention on the PGA Tour website in a story on ‘horses for courses’, but the Glaswegian has performed well on this stage in the past.
He finished joint-fourth behind Australian Geoff Ogilvy on his debut in 2010 before being runner-up to Steve Stricker two years later then adding a third top-20 effort in the 2014 event won by Zach Johnson.
“I knew I finished second one year but honestly had forgotten I had another top five,” said Laird. “I really like the course and feel like it sets up nicely for me with a lot of holes suiting my left-to-right shot shape.
“It also normally blows hard here, too and I feel like one of my strengths is my ability to keep my driver low and in play in windy conditions, I guess a result of growing up in Scotland.
“I am also more of a feel player than mechanical and you definitely need that around here with the massive elevation changes, wind and sloped greens.”
Laird’s return to winning ways in Las Vegas, where he beat American duo Matthew Wolff and Austin Cook in a play-off, secured a first Masters appearance in April since 2013. His spot in the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in May is also tied down as he bids to start 2021 on a positive note.
“My game feels really good right now even with almost no practice since November due to the weather in Denver, so I am looking forward to hopefully putting together another good week,” he said.
“I just want to keep doing what I have been doing since returning from my knee surgery. I have been a lot more disciplined with all aspects of my game and preparation and it paid off in Vegas and I know that I can keep getting better and see where it takes me.
“I guess my goal is to take care of the small details and make sure I am doing them well and I know I will continue to play better.”
Laird is not staying on in Hawaii for next week’s Sony Open, heading home to Colorado before teeing up in both The American Express at La Quinta and Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in California.
He will then play in the Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, have another week off before completing the opening phase of his 2021 schedule in the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
This week’s event marks the restart of Europe’s Ryder Cup points race after the qualifying battle for the rescheduled match at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in September was put on ice last summer due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Points earned from the start of the qualifying process, the 2019 BMW PGA Championship, to the last event to finish before the circuit went into lockdown last March, the Qatar Masters, still count.
The first four automatic qualifiers will come from a European points list, the next five from a world points list and the European captain, Padraig Harrington, will then have three wildcard picks.
At the restart, Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Scottish-based Frenchman Victor Perez, Tyrrell Hatton, Danny Willett, Matt Fitzpatrick, Lee Westwood and Bernd Wiesberger are the players occupying the automatic berths.
Rahm, who is making his first outing this week with new Callaway clubs, will move almost 150 points ahead at the top of the world points list if he wins on Sunday, while fellow Spaniard and record Ryder Cup points-scorer Sergio Garcia and Norwegian sensation Viktor Hovland will leap into the qualifying zone with a victory.
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