The Zozo Championship
It was a profitable week for us in the end at the CJ Cup courtesy of Cam Smith’s third place finish, however it could have been an awful lot better if our pre-tournament 175-1 shot Wyndham Clark hadn’t stalled on Sunday with 12 straight pars before finally posting a birdie on 18.
Wyndham had started the day in a tie for fourth place after back to back rounds of 67 on Friday and Saturday and as he was only four shots of the lead he still had an outside chance of victory. In the end though it wasn’t to be for him and his lacklustre day meant he couldn’t hold on even for the place.
The trophy meanwhile was lifted deservedly for the second time by Justin Thomas who after opening the door for the chasing pack on Saturday with a bogey at 18 produced a serene performance to close things out on Sunday.
So, we move on to the second week of the ‘Asian Swing’ and a brand new event The Zozo Championship, which takes place in Chiba, Japan, about 25 miles from Tokyo.
The tournament is certainly here to stay for the near future as a deal has been signed, which will see it take its place on the schedule until at least 2025.
Like last week the event is a limited field event with no cut. The field in principle is made up of the top 60 available players from the previous seasons Fedex Cup, the top seven players in the current Japan Golf Tour’s money list through the Bridgestone Open, the top three players finishing in the Bridgestone Open and eight sponsors exemptions.
The field on display this week is a very strong one with last weeks winner Justin Thomas teeing it up again alongside Rory McIlroy and home favourite Hideki Matsuyama.
In addition we have Tiger Woods teeing it up for the first time this season and he will presumably be looking to impress himself with a view to possibly giving himself a wildcard pick for the forthcoming Presidents Cup….
At the time of writing the betting market is headed up by Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy who are both at single figure odds. They are then followed by Hideki Matsuyama who is understandably a fairly warm order.
The host course Accordia Golf Narashino CC a par 70 measuring just under 7041yds.
Importantly though unlike most par 70 courses the course includes five par 3’s and three par 5s in its setup instead of the customary two par 5s and four par 3s.
The course sits 26 miles east of Tokyo’s glistening downtown Ginza district, just over halfway to Narita International Airport.
There are two courses at Narashino CC, the King and the Queen course, and this weeks 18 holes will be made up of a composite of the two.
The course opened in 1965.
The greens are Bentgrass.
The most unique feature of the course is that as is the custom with many Japanese golf courses each hole has two greens. If a player finds the wrong green during tournament week, which isn’t in play on the hole, they will get a free drop under a ‘wrong green’ ruling to the nearest point of relief.
Obviously with the course being new to the tour we have little to go on this week, however having viewed a ‘flyover’ of the course from the tournament website and also a video from Youtube [both of, which I have posted on Twitter over the past couple of days for those of you interested in taking a look] my overriding thought is that with narrowish, treelined fairways and smallish greens it reminds me of a the sort of course you find in the Carolina’s, perhaps like Sedgefield or Quail Hollow [although not comparable in length to the latter], or even more so to Copperhead, home of the Valspar Championship over on the Tampa coast, which is often seen as more as a Carolina’s type course rather than a Florida one.
With the event being in its first year we have naturally nothing to go on history wise, however with it now taking up the slot of the second event on the Asian swing I thought it would be interesting to look at the data from the past couple of years from the CJ Cup, which previously held that slot, as to how many people featured on the leaderboard who had played the week before in the now defunct CIMB Classic.
The aim here is of course is to establish how much of an advantage the players who have been in Asia for a week already and have therefore had a chance to acclimatize to the conditions and time zone, have over those just arriving in Asia for this event.
If we look firstly at 2017 of those players who made the top ten at the CJ Cup, eight of these players, JT, Smith, Whee Kim, Perez, Lahiri, Lovemark, List and Brown all played at TPC Malaysia in the CIMB Classic the week before.
If we then move on to 2018 seven of the players, who finished in the top nine, [there was a four way tie for tenth] Woodland, Cabrera-Bello, Palmer, Piercy, Reavie, C Smith, Perez, all played in Kuala Lumpur the week before.
It would appear therefore, all be it with a fairy small sample to look at, the week to acclimatise to the time zone is hugely beneficial.
The early part of the week shows some heavier rainfall in the forecast on Tuesday so it could be that we see a softer course come Thursday. There is then potential for further rain showers on Thursday and Friday.
Wind could be a bit of an issue on Thursday and Friday in particular with gusts of 15mph+ in the forecast.
Temperatures look to improve as the week progresses increasing from mid to high 60s to low to mid 70s by the weekend.
As I always say though…this could all change!
I have gone with four players this week as follows;
GARY WOODLAND –33-1 – 1.5pts e/w 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED 5th
I mentioned earlier that what information I have been able to find on the course this week has lead me to believe that it may have the feel of the Copperhead Course in Tampa home of the Valspar Championship, as well as other courses in the Carolina’s and with the absence of anything else to go on this angle is going to be the theme running through my selections this week, alongside solid recent form, which preferably includes a run out last week.
The first player to tick these boxes for me is the reigning US Open Champion Gary Woodland.
Woodland has been a regular visitor to Asia over the recent years at this time of year and in nine starts in the two events, the CIMB Classic and CJ Cup, that have proceeded the WGC HSBC Championship lately he has racked up five top five finishes, the latest of which came last weekend at the CJ Cup.
This third place finish on Jeju Island, was a welcome return to form for Gary as it was his first top ten finish since his victory at Pebble Beach in June and it was particularly eye catching as after a fairly sluggish start he finished the week with rounds of 65 and 66 to storm through the field.
So we’ve established that Woodland has a history of good form in this part of the world and comes in here with the desired run out and good finish in South Korea but what makes him of even more interest this week is his historical form on the sort of test I believe the players will face this week.
To expand further while there is a temptation to assume that as a big hitter Garry will mostly come to the fore on tracks classed as ‘bombers paradises’ if we look at where he has had most of his successes over the years the opposite is actually true.
Firstly of course the obvious example is Pebble Beach, a short par 70 track, which requires accurate Iron play, where the Kansas native lifted the US Open crown last summer, however aside from this if we look at Woodlands results over the years we will see he has produced strong performances at venues like Waialae CC, home of the Sony Open, and El Camaleon, home of the Mayakoba Classic.
In addition and perhaps most pertinently for this week in my eyes Gary notched his first PGA Tour victory on the Copperhead Course at the Transitions Championship back in 2011.
All in all in a week where naturally a fair bit of speculation is called for Gary ticks a lot of the boxes I am looking at going in to the event and I am happy to have him lead off our team this week.
RYAN MOORE – 55-1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 72nd
Next up for us this week is our old friend Ryan Moore, who, it would be fair to say regular readers, are probably fed up of seeing feature in these previews every few weeks of late.
Nothing but stubborn though I am convinced that Moore is close to another victory and for those who haven’t yet moved on to the next player in the preview I will outline my logic for why I think this may [finally] be his week.
Firstly, the obvious factor is that Ryan does appear to be trending nicely in to form with a 13th place finish in Vegas followed by a strong eighth place finish in Korea last week.
Moving away from this though my main reason for liking the UNLV man this week is that, if my suspicions as to how the course will play are correct, this will be a test of accuracy and precision, which should be right up his alley
To cement my thoughts further Moore has two top five finishes over recent years at Copperhead, is a past champion at Sedgefield and also has a strong record at Quail Hollow, all of, which I believe could be great pointers for this week.
Finally, when putting Moore up at the Safeway Championship a few backs I noted that I felt the recent birth of his third child could lead to another victory soon as he had posted a win in very close proximity to the birth of his first two children, and his play on his last two starts has done nothing to dissuade me of this fact.
A two time winner in Malaysia Ryan clearly enjoys his trips East at this time of year and I believe he can come very close to posting another victory on Asian soil this week.
ADAM HADWIN – 55-1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 41st
I am keen to focus predominantly this week on players who tee’d it up in Korea last week for reasons noted earlier, however I am going to make one exception to that in the shape of the first of two Canadians to make our team this week, Adam Hadwin.
Hadwin arrives in Japan on the back of some great early season form, which has seen him finish second at the Safeway Open and Fourth at the Shriners in his first two starts of the new campaign.
Obviously form like this is something that makes you stop and look at a players credentials for the week, however once we go past this there are some compelling factors that make you think Adam could produce the goods again this time out.
Firstly, I will once more return to the Copperhead link and the fact that this is the venue at, which Hadwin posted his lone PGA Tour title to date back in 2017. Surely therefore pitching up at another tree lined course, which features five par 3s will give him positive vibes, even if it is halfway around the world.
Talking of Par 3s it is also worth noting that, while admittedly it is very early days in the new season, Hadwin currently sits third for the new campaign in Par 3 performance, a sign that he is striking his irons well surely, something further born out by the fact that he also sits third on tour so far this season in SGATTG.
Finally we are getting close to the reckoning hour for Ernie Els to make his wildcard picks for the forthcoming Presidents Cup and Adam will know that a couple more strong performances over the next two weeks to go with his recent great play will make him hard to ignore.
Hadwin arrived in Korea last year without a warm up in Malaysia and finished tenth and with a second PGA Tour victory for this talented Canadian due I am happy at the odds on offer to take a chance that he can hit the ground running this week, on a course that I believe will suit his game.
COREY CONNERS – 70-1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 6th
I’m going to finish this week by including a second Canadian, Corey Conners.
Like Hadwin, Conners will surely be on the radar of Ernie Els for a Presidents Cup wildcard pick and the fact that he will be duly looking to impress is a bonus.
Away from this angle though, my strong hunch here and indeed recurring theme through my picks this week, is that this will be a course that will suit Conners’ stellar iron game down to the ground.
First in the 2018/19 campaign in GIR and 9th in SGATTG Corey hits greens for fun all day long and on this basis a track with five par 3s on it must be music to his ears, something backed up further by the fact that he was 22nd last season in Par 3 performance.
The fact that Corey is at home on a course, which rewards strong iron play then leads nicely to our recurring theme of the week of form at the Copperhead track as Conners memorably lead a stellar field including Tiger Woods through 54 holes in Tampa back in 2018.
Furthermore Corey also posted his maiden PGA Tour win at another tough tree lined track at the Valero Texas Open last spring.
Conners has started his 2019/20 campaign in solid fashion with a 13th place finish at the Safeway Open, followed by a 12th place finish last week in Korea and I am confident he can go well this week at a venue, which I believe strongly will suit his game.