The CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges
Once again it was a frustrating end to the week for us in Houston as Beau Hossler who was ideally positioned going in to Sunday to lay to rest the ‘ghost of Poulter past’ limped home with a level par 72 in round four to fall out of the places and, allowing for the disappointing showing from the rest of our team, leave us with a blank week.
Congratulations must go though to Lanto Griffin who posted his first PGA Tour victory, and with Griffin having arrived in Houston in a really solid run of form it was a timely reminder that sometimes it pays not to look to over complicate things and to simply side with the guy who’s been playing great of late!
So, with five weeks of the new 2019/20 PGA Tour season already completed the tour now heads of for what has become its customary ‘Asian Swing’ that we see at this time of the year.
This year though things are slightly different as alongside the this weeks event The CJ Cup and the WGC HSBC Champions, which we’ll see in a couple of weeks time, we have a new event on the calendar next week in Japan, The Zozo Championship, which replaces the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, which is no longer on the schedule.
In addition it’s worth mentioning that we have a new ‘opposite field’ event on the calendar alongside the WGC HSBC Champions this year to look forward to, The Bermuda Championship.
This weeks event The CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges debuted on tour in 2017 so this year is its third edition.
The tournament is played at Nine Bridges Golf Club on Jeju Island in South Korea.
Needless to say Nine Bridges GC has only eight bridges, with the ninth bridge being metaphorical, that which connects the club to its members and guests.
The event is a limited field event with no cut. The field is made up of the top 60 available players from the previous seasons Fedex Cup, plus qualifiers from the Asian Tour and Korean Tour.
The field and betting market are dominated by Justin Thomas, who won here in 2017 and Brooks Koepka who is the defending champion this week. They are then followed in the market by Hideki Matsuyama, Tommy Fleetwood and Viktor Hovland.
The Club @ Nine Bridges is a par 72 measuring just under 7200yds.
The greens are creeping Bentgrass.
The course was designed by Golf Plan whose two principles are Ronald Fream & David Dale.
It was completed in 2001 and is considered to be one of, if not the, finest courses in Korea.
Despite its Asian location the course bares a lot of similarities to Gleneagles in Perthshire particularly on the back nine, which is referred to as the Highland Course.
Importantly the course is situated 3500ft up Mount Halle, which is South Korea’s highest mountain. As such the course plays ‘at altitude’.
Other events played at altitude on the PGA Tour include the WGC Mexico and The Barracuda Championship, whilst the Omega Masters at Crans-Sur-Sierre on the European Tour is played at significant altitude.
Another important factor is that again due to its location the course is exposed to wind and this is something that played a significant part in the first edition of the event won by Justin Thomas.
With the event now entering its third year we have very little to go on however we saw in the first edition in 2017 that if the wind blows and with altitude in play that this is a tough test.
That year the trophy was won by Justin Thomas who opened with a round of 63 [-9] only to find that three days later after further rounds of 74 70 & 72 the same total was enough to earn a playoff with Mark Leishman before he clinched the victory.
Third was another Aussie, Cameron Smith with -6, whilst fourth was the lone Korean in the top 10, Whee Kim.
The remainder of the top 10 was filled out by a bunch of players all tying on -5. These were Perez, Lovemark, List, Harman, Brown & Lahiri.
To show how tough the test was that year not one player managed four rounds under par and only three players, Leishman, Kim and Harman managed four rounds of par or better.
Last time around however things were slightly different as after a tougher opening day saw no one bettering 68 the wind died down and Brooks Koepka stormed to the title with a winning score of -21.
Four shots behind Koepka we then saw Gary Woodland finishing in second place, while Ryan Palmer and Rafael Cabrera-Bello tied for third two shots further back.
The remainder of the top ten was then made up of Day, Piercy, Perez, Reavie and Cameron Smith.
With the event following the now defunct CIMB Classic for the past two years one angle we historically had to go on was to focus on players who had played in Malaysia the week before and were therefore acclimatised to the region, this year however the CJ Cup opens up the ‘Asian Swing’ so we do not have this angle to go on.
For what its worth though one of these winners Koepka was making his seasonal debut when he was victorious here last year while the other Justin Thomas had performed solidly at the CIMB the week before he won here.
If we look at the stats of both winners neither were up there right at the top of the tree on the week in finding fairways or greens however both took care of business predominantly on the par 5s with Thomas finishing the week third in Par 5 scoring when he won and Koepka fourth. Brooks meanwhile also not unsurprisingly lead the field in par 4 scoring last year.
Finally, one other angle I couldn’t help but notice is that both winners have a strong record at the Honda Classic played at PGA National in Florida with Thomas having won the trophy there and Koepka having finished second there this year.
Now obviously with such a small sample size and allowing for the fact that JT and Brooks are world class acts liable to play well anywhere this may be a complete red herring, however if we allow for the fact that PGA National is a course where the wind often blows there could well be something to this link.
Furthermore if we dig deeper on the two leader boards in the event to date we see that last years runner up Woodland has also finished second at PGA National while Ryan Palmer and Luke List who have both finished in the top five here in the past two years have also posted fourth and second place finishes respectively at the Honda in the past couple of years. All in all then I do think this is a link worth pursuing further.
The early part of the week shows some heavier rainfall in the forecast so it could be that we see a softer course come Thursday, which will help the bigger hitters. There is then potential for further rain on Friday.
Thursday and Friday look the stronger days wind wise with gusts of 15mph+ in the forecast all though with the course being exposed this could always be stronger.
Finally, temperatures look set to hover around the 70 degree mark all week.
As I always say though…this could all change!
With JT and Brooks looming large over the field this week it doesn’t really need to be said that there is a fair chance one of these two will come out on top this week.
Whilst my preference out of the two is for JT with single figure odds on both I can’t find it within myself to pull the trigger on either and I have instead decided to seek some strong e/w alternatives elsewhere.
On that basis I have gone with four players this week as follows;
MARC LEISHMAN –33-1 – 1.5pts e/w 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 43rd
First cab off the rank for us this week is Marc Leishman.
The Aussie was struggling slightly at the end of last season, and indeed on his first start this, with a slight back problem and this culminated with a withdrawal after round one of the Greenbrier in the middle of September.
Last time out however at the Safeway Leishman appeared to be back to full health and he performed very nicely to finish third.
On this basis we must assume that Marc is now back to 100% and this has to bode well for a time of year that must rank as one of his favourites.
The reason I say this is that if we look at how Leishman has started out the Asian Swing over the past three years it is clear that he has now grown very comfortable playing in this part of the world.
Fifth at the CIMB in 2016 the Aussie then started his 2017 Asian Swing by losing out to Thomas in a play off for the title here before then going one better at the CIMB in 2018 to clinch the title. Clearly therefore Marc has found the secret to arriving in Asia ready to play.
After posting the victory in Kuala Lumpur in 2018 Leishman understandably was never really in the hunt for the trophy here the following week, however he certainly didn’t disgrace himself finishing 18th to rubber stamp his liking for the course.
Renowned as a strong player in the wind if it does blow this week this will hold no fears for Leishman and primed from his strong performance at the Safeway I am more than happy to have him on side at the odds on offer.
CAMERON SMITH – 40-1 – 1.5pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 3rd
Next up for us this week is another Aussie, Cameron Smith.
I sided with Cam in this event last year on the back of his third place finish in the event in 2017 and he rewarded us with a small return by finishing in a share of seventh place.
Twelve months down the line and somewhat surprisingly to me this hugely talented player arrives in South Korea still without a solo PGA Tour victory to his name.
Looking at Cameron’s 2018/19 season in more detail and it actually bore a strong similarity to his 2017/18 season in that he started of the campaign strongly, faded in the late spring/early summer and then started to recapture some form in the latter part of the season.
The highlights of the 18/19 season for Smith undoubtedly came in the first part of the year as he posted a seventh place finish here and a ninth place finish at Torrey Pines, while his best finish of the season came at Chapultepec in the WGC-Mexico, another event played at altitude, where he finished sixth.
While Cam struggled in the latter part of the campaign his early season form just about saw him do enough to bag the eighth and final qualifying spot in the Internationals Presidents Cup Team so when you factor this in alongside the big events, which take place ‘down under’ at the back end of the year this is a time of year where Smith [and indeed Leishman] will be looking to ramp up his game and he will be 100% focused.
From this point of view his performance last time out in Vegas where he closed with a 65 to finish 13th certainly caught my eye and it was particularly pleasing to see his customary strength the putter working well for him as he finished the week ranked seventh with the flat stick.
We know that Cam was brought up on the windy Brisbane coast and as well as winning the 2017 Aussie PGA he has delivered strong finishes over the years at Hilton Head, Pebble Beach, Chambers Bay when he was 4th in the US Open and as already mentioned last season at Torrey Pines, so he is more than comfortable in windier conditions.
Cam has shown with his big finishes at Chambers Bay, Augusta and in Mexico at the WGC that he tends to raise his game in the company of the games biggest names so he will not be overawed by the likes of JT and Brooks if in the hunt come Sunday and I am confident that he can come close to bagging his maiden solo PGA Tour title this week.
LUKE LIST – 90-1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 57th
I mentioned the potential link with the Honda Classic earlier and this is something I am going to explore with my final two picks this week, starting with Luke List.
34yr old List remains a PGA Tour maiden and has developed a bit of a reputation, as someone who cant be completely trusted come Sunday, however he did very little wrong when losing out to Justin Thomas in a play off at the Honda in 2017 and I feel it is only a matter of time until he finally makes the breakthrough.
Fifth here after holding the first round lead that same year List showed clearly with that performance that he is suited to the track and he returns here now looking as though he has turned the corner after a disappointing end to his 18/19 season.
Luke’s poor form through the back end of last season can perhaps be put down to a loss of confidence coming about as a result of a poor final day at the years second major the USPGA where he had a chance to win going in to Sunday before fading to sixth with a final round of 74.
After , what was still an excellent result though at the USPGA List then went on a run of six consecutive missed cuts before his season ended tamely after a 77th place finish at the Northern Trust.
Luke’s 19/20 campaign didn’t start any better with two missed cuts back to back at the Sanderson Farms and the Safeway, however 13th place at the Shriners and 28th place last week at Houston seem to show he has rediscovered some form in time for the trip to Asia.
At the Shriners List finished the week 13th in Strokes Gained Total so all of his game seemed to be in reasonable working order while in Houston he was tenth for SGOFT and 17th for the week in SGTTG with only the putter letting him down.
Returning now to Jeju Island on the back of his bogey free Sunday in Houston my hope is that Luke is on the cusp of another great week at a course, which clearly suits him well.
WYNDHAM CLARK – 175-1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 8th
I’m going to finish this week by taking a flyer at huge odds on Wyndham Clark.
The reason Clark is languishing out with the 175-1 shots is a combination of his poor recent form, which has seen him miss his first three cuts this season alongside no previous pedigree in this event.
The reason I am willing to take a risk on Wyndham though is that, whichever way I look at things this week, he strikes me as someone who has the perfect profile for this event/venue.
To explain further…Firstly Clark finished just behind Thomas to rank second in par 5 scoring last season, something we have established is important this week.
Secondly if we look at the two leaderboards we have seen here it is littered with big hitting players, Koepka, Woodland, Palmer, Day and Piercy last year and Thomas, Lovemark, Lahiri and of course List the year before, and Clark is known as a big hitter finishing last season fifth on tour in DD.
Furthermore several of these players are very similar to Clark as they combine their length with being great exponents flat stick, with Day, Palmer and Piercy being the three who stand out here and this is Clark’s game down to a tee having finished last season eighth in putting.
Finally of course we have the Honda Classic link where Wyndham was the leader after three rounds earlier this year.
The concern of course is Clark’s three missed cuts to start the season however it is not like he has been shooting horrendous scores and his last two tournaments have seen three rounds of 72 and a 70. In addition we shouldn’t forget that Clark finished his last campaign with four top twenty finishes in his past seven starts so he was showing good form not too long ago.
Clark was brought up in Denver, Colorado and know lives in Vegas so despite the missed cut at The Shriners recently you have to think that he will feel comfortable playing at altitude and in an event where he ticks an awful lot of boxes for me I am happy to roll the dice with him at huge odds.