The Zozo Championship
It was another profitable week for us at the CJ Cup with the each way returns once again proving to be fruitful.
The men who rewarded us were Talor Gooch and Aaron Wise who both finished in a four way tie for fifth to bring us a nice profit on the week.
The trophy meanwhile was lifted by Rory McIlroy who bounced back in fine style from his Ryder cup heartache to close out a one shot victory over a charging Collin Morikawa.
So, we move on and it’s time for a trip to Japan for The Zozo Championship. The event is held at Accordia Golf Narashino CC in Chiba, which is about 25 miles from Tokyo.
The tournament, which was introduced to the calendar in 2019 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.
Last year however due to the covid 19 pandemic the event was moved for one year only to the US, more specifically Sherwood CC in California, this year though we return to Japan for the second playing at the home venue.
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 has unfortunately suffered on the back, I would assume, of a reluctance of the big names to travel overseas at present in the wake of the covid 19 pandemic.
There are still several bigger names who are making the trip though with Olympic Champion Xander Schauffele and Collin Morikawa dominating the market. They are then followed by home favourite Hideki Matsuyama, Will Zalatoris, Tommy Fleetwood and Joaquin Niemann.
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.
Prior to the 2019 edition I viewed a ‘flyover’ of the course from the tournament website and also a video from Youtube and my overriding thought was that with narrowish, treelined fairways and smallish greens it reminded me of 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 having been played on US soil last year we can for all intensive purposes dismiss the 2020 edition from our thinking meaning we have one outing in 2019 at Narashino CC to focus on.
So then let’s have a look at the top ten finishers from that year.
1 T Woods
2 H Matsuyama
T3 S Im & R McIlroy
5 G Woodland
T6 C Conners & B Horschel
T8 B An & C Howell III
T10, D Lee, R Palmer, X Schauffele
So, what can we glean from this leaderboard? Well with only one year’s worth of data not too much in all honesty, particularly as we don’t have any strokes gained data to go on. [Not that I can find anyway!]. What we can see though from the stats available is that the key that week to Tiger’s win was a hot putter, he ranked first in old fashioned ‘putts per GIR’ and a strong approach game, he was third in GIR. Basically he did everything great, something reflected in the fact that he was six shots clear of the third place finishers.
The second player home, home hero Matsuyama, ranked second for the week in putting, rubber stamping the hot putter angle, while he was sixth in GIR and Sungjae Im who tied for third with McIlroy was fourth in putting.
One other angle that interests me is some thing that I speculated on in my preview in 2019 prior to the courses first outing and that is that the flyovers I had seen reminded me in some ways of a Copperhead type course in it being tree lined and quite tight in places. The reason this angle still interests me is if we look at the final top ten noted above we have one former Copperhead Champion, Woodland, a player in Im who finished top five that year in the Valspar and a player in Conners who first hit our consciousness when he lead at the Copperhead through three rounds and had Tiger for company on Sunday.
We look set this week for four days of pleasant conditions with temperatures hovering around the mid 60s.
Wind could be a bit of an issue on though as gusts of 15mph+ in the forecast across the four days.
As I always say though…this could all change!
I have gone with five players this week as follows;
MAVERICK MCNEALY –35/1 – 1.5pts e/w 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 25th
Let’s be honest there is every likelihood that one of the big names on offer at prohibitive odds will prevail this week and I would not for example be at all surprised should Xander Schauffele end his winless PGA Tour drought on his return to the country that saw him land the Olympic trophy in the summer.
Backing players at 6 or 7/1 though is not really my strategy and I will lose no sleep should Xander or indeed Collin Morikawa triumph at those odds.
As such my sway forward this week will be to look to boost our each way coffers for the season further at bigger odds whilst also having the hope of landing an upset winner.
One exception to that though and the one player I do like at shorter odds is Maverick McNealy and I will start our team with the talented Californian this week.
Backing maidens at shortish odds is of course a risky business however as we know McNealy is no ordinary maiden and his first win of several will surely come soon.
Looking at Maverick’s sophomore season and from the end of May onwards he was a model of consistency playing eight weekends running and posting seven finishes between 16th and 30th. After a brief break he then began the 21/22 season with a runner up finish at the Fortinet Championship before a rare missed cut followed at The Shriners. Finally, and to bring us right up to date the 25yr old post a mid-table finish at the CJ Cup last weekend.
At the CJ Cup it has to be said McNealy was slightly disappointing on a course he knows really well and it may just be that the ‘home game’ expectancy got to him slightly.
Moving on and this week Maverick jets of to Japan to play a course that will be new to him, but, and this is the crux of why I am chancing him this week, my hunch is will suit him well.
My reasoning here is that McNealy has shown since he has been on tour that he is at his best on shorter tracks that he can plot his way around such as Pebble Beach where he has finished fifth and second and Hilton Head where he finished fourth last season. In addition his next best finish last season came on another track where shorter hitters tend to thrive, the Mayakoba.
Finally when at his best McNealy is really strong on the greens, something, which we are looking for this week, and something which he showed by finishing ninth on tour with the putter in his debut season.
Call it a hunch but to sum up Maverick seems most comfortable on shorter, quirkier courses, exactly like the one they face this week and in a field that clearly lacks strength in depth I am happy to chance him to breakthrough this time out.
MACKENZIE HUGHES – 55/1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 4th
If we are looking for strong putters then one name that will always be near the top of the list is that of Mackenzie Hughes.
Hughes who’s lone PGA Tour success to date came at the short Seaside Course home of the RSM Classic has become known as one of the best putters on the PGA Tour, something which is confirmed by his ranking of eighth in putting for the 19/20 season, 15th for the 20/21 campaign and eighth so far this time out.
Whilst the Canadian has been known as one of the best putters out there for a long while now since making it to the Tour Championship at the end of the 19/20 season Hughes has featured far more prominently at the business end of big tournaments with last season seeing him post four top tens including a sixth place at The Open. In addition he was right in the hunt through three rounds at the US Open before understandably falling away on Sunday.
Knocking on the door then of a second PGA Tour title the suspicion is when it comes it will most likely be on a par 70 track as five of his seven stroke play top tens have come on par 70 layouts. Furthermore I do like the fact that one of those top tens came at the Honda Classic, an event, which ties in nicely with Im, McIlroy, Woodland and An who all performed well here in 2019.
Resultswise Mackenzie has started his 21/22 season in solid but unspectacular fashion with a 35th place finish at the Sanderson Farms and a 25th place last week at the CJ Cup, however in that performance last week there was a second round of 62, which even at the ‘getable’ Summit Club showed his game is in great shape.
Heading off then to Japan in good shape I like the look of Hughes on this short quirky track, which rewarded strong putting last time round and I am happy to chance him this week.
TOM HOGE – 100/1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 17th
Next up this week I am going to give a chance to Tom Hoge to bag his first PGA Tour win.
There are two things, which draw me to Hoge this week the first of, which is naturally his recent form.
Fifty Fourth in last seasons Fedex Cup Hoge posted a seasons best fourth place in his penultimate start of the campaign at the Northern Trust. He has then started the new season with three top forty finishes in four starts to show his form is holding up nicely.
Last weekend at the CJ Cup Tom started slowly however after losing strokes on the first two days with his approach play, he picked up just under six shots in this area over Saturday and Sunday to finish the week ranked 14th in strokes-gained-approach-to-the-green.
So we’ve established Tom is in decent nick as he hops on the plane to Japan however what really draws me to him this week is his historical form on shorter and/or par 70 layouts.
Firstly Hoge has produced some of his best form over the years at Pebble Beach, the Mayakoba and at Waialae where he has twice figured prominently. Furthermore and perhaps most pertinently for this week allowing for the tentative link to a Carolina’s style layout, he has twice shot his career best 62 at Sedgefield CC where he held the 36 hole lead a couple of months back.
To sum up whenever a shorter par 70 is in play Hoge more often than not pops up and if you add this to solid form of late and an eye catching improvement over the four days in Vegas last week he makes plenty of appeal at the odds this time around.
TROY MERRITT – 100/1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 28th
Next up I am going to roll the dice on it being a ‘go week’ for Troy Merritt.
Merritt as we know is one of those players that it is almost impossible to catch right however as a two time winner on tour we know that when the mood takes him he is capable of delivering the goods.
Last season Troy found his form through the summer months racking up four top tens over a two month period between May and July. Furthermore significantly for this week one of those top tens came at the Copperhead Course, home of the Valspar, which we know ties well here, while another came on a par 70 layout at Colonial CC.
Granted the back end of the season saw Troy go slightly off the boil however he started the new season with a 16th place at the Fortinet and although he then missed the cut at the Shriners a second round 66 showed his game to still be in decent shape. In addition between those two events Troy took the time to travel over to the UK and post a creditable 27th place at the Dunhill Links so a missed cut the following week after jetting back to the West Coast was hardly a shock.
Always solid on the greens Merritt’s approach play has also been strong in his first two starts this season as he currently ranks 21st on tour in this area this campaign so this also backs up that he is playing nicely.
Finally while slightly leftfield it is worth noting that Troy posted his first and second wins on tour in 2015 and 2018 so it may well not be lost on him that three years further on he is due to strike again.
As I started off by saying there is no doubt Merritt is a tough player to read but there is enough going for him in my eyes this week that he is worth chancing.
SUNG KANG – 125/1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 48th
Finally this week I will confess to having been pleasantly surprised at the odds available on Sung Kang and he ranks a ‘must play’ for me this week based on price alone.
There is no doubt that 20/21 was a big struggle for Kang however he finished off the season with by far his best effort of the campaign, a 15th place at the correlating Wyndham Championship.
Despite this effort not being enough to make the play offs Kang’s card was not in jeopardy courtesy of his 2019 AT & T Byron Nelson triumph. His exemption for this win though runs out at the end of this season and it would seem the Korean is determined not to get himself in to a repeat of last seasons struggles and he has started the new campaign by building on that finish at the Wyndham and playing four weekends running.
Looking at Sung’s performances this season and while his best is only a 27th at the Shriners he opened that week with a round of 61 while he also posted a 64 in last weeks CJ Cup to show again that he is ‘close’.
While Kang can go through long stretches of poor play he is also a player who is not afraid to mix it with the big names when his game is firing, something that a second place at Riviera, a seventh in the PGA Championship and a seventh at the API Invitational over recent years shows us.
Finally of course we should not ignore the fact that as a born and bred Korean Kang will be perfectly at home in the Asian climate and having posted a third place finish in the now defunct CIMB Classic he clearly enjoys travelling back to the Far East to play.
In summary we know Kang is more than capable of mixing it at the top level and with his game clearly trending in the right direction he stands out to me this week at the three figure odds.