Congratulations to Marc Leishman backers who landed last week in Malaysia at 22/1. A small share of the each-way money from 5th place Gary Woodland was all we had to show for last week’s effort, which was a little disappointing after Woodland co-led across 36 and 54 holes. Such is Gary Woodland!
We move onto the 2nd leg of the PGA Tour Asian swing. The CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges is being played in South Korea and features a strong 78-man field with no cut again in operation. Host course The Club at Nine Bridges is located on the holiday island of Jeju and 12 months ago we saw Justin Thomas win his 6th tournament in 12 months, defeating Marc Leishman in a play-off with our own selection Cameron Smith a single shot back. With an increased $9.5 million purse this week, which is the biggest player fund outside of the Majors and WGCs this season, a number of players are using the CJ Cup as a convenient warm-up for next week’s WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.
The CJ Cup field comprises 78 attendees including the top-60 available players from the closing 2018 FedEx Cup rankings, 5 PGA Tour sponsor’s exemptions, the top-2 from the Asian Tour, plus of course a host of South Korean players – some familiar, some not. The course and the climate will be totally different from that we saw in Kuala Lumpur last week, with wind certainly a feature last year and temperatures way down on what we saw in Malaysia.
Course Guide: The Club at Nine Bridges proved to be a very popular addition to the PGA Tour with players last year, with 3 rounds being played in very windy, stretching conditions. The course is located at altitude on the lower slopes of Mount Halla, which is Korea’s highest mountain. A prestigious and select members-only club, the countryside is described as having a real Scottish feel to it. It’s pretty much an American design set in upper pineland countryside. Grasses are very North American with Bentgrass across the whole course, overseeded with Kentucky Bluegrass in terms of rough. Greens are Creeping Bentgrass. It’s not overly stretching at a 7,200 yard par 72, especially at altitude, and the course has a mix of relatively short par-4s and par-5s. It makes for a serious risk and reward golf course.
The Club at Nine Bridges, Jeju Island, South Korea: Designer: Ronald Fream and David Dale 2001, with Dale and Wenzloff (2016) renovations; Course Type: Resort; Par: 72; Length: 7,196 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 5; Fairways: Bentgrass; Rough: Bentgrass, overseeded with Kentucky Bluegrass 2″; Greens: Creeping Bentgrass; Tournament Stimp: 10.5ft. Course Scoring Average 2017: 70.66 (-1.34), Difficulty Rank 4 of 51.
Course Overview: The Club at Nine Bridges is located on Jeju Island, located in the Korea Straits. A tourist destination, Jeju is referred to as South Korea’s Maui, a volcanic island, with Mount Halla at its centre which is the highest mountain in South Korea. The Nine Bridges Golf Club itself, which was built and owned by the tournament sponsors CJ Group, is positioned 3,500ft up in the foothills of the mountain. So the course is exposed to wind, with the ball flying slightly further due to the altitude.
The course itself is made up of two distinct sets of nine holes, the Creek Course and Highland Course, and will play as a 7,196 yard, par 72 for the tournament. The opening nine, the Creek Course, features creeks, trees and stone walls. The back nine, the Highland Course, opens out featuring meadows, a lake and deeper bunkers. The course, unsurprisingly as designed by California-based Golfplan, has a real American feel to it, with many visitors stating that it does have a Gleneagles feel to it also. For me it has slight associations with Kapalua on Maui and this link certainly works with both Justin Thomas and Marc Leishman and both have had great success at the New Year winner-only event.
A couple of factors become really obvious from the tournament held here for the first time last year:
1) The course plays as difficult as the wind blows. On Thursday in benign conditions, Justin Thomas shot a superb -9/63 to lead. The course played to a field average of 70.95, with a further 10 players shooting 65 or 66. It was far from a technical test. That all changed though from Friday onwards as 20-25 mph north-easterly winds turned Nine Bridges into a gnarly golf test, with lots of players mentioning swirling winds the likes of which made the course very difficult. The fact that a score of -9/279 got both Leishman and Thomas into the play-off tells you all you need to know about scoring over the closing 54 holes. Thomas didn’t lower his score from Thursday onwards and Leishman shot -3/213 across Friday to Sunday.
2) With a couple of driveable par-4s (the 8th and 14th), plus all of the par-5s at sub 600 yards, those with an ability to bomb the ball and carry key fairway bunkers and doglegs ultimately triumphed. The closing par-5 was a prime example of this, with bombers being able to take a route down the left of the split fairway, allowing for a fairway wood (or even driver) approach into the island green for a second shot. Again this hole reminded me slightly of the closing par-5 18th at Kapalua.
Winners: 2017: Justin Thomas (-9).
Published Predictor Model: Our published predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 10 of my published predictor are Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Gary Woodland, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Keith Mitchell, Xander Schauffele, Kevin Tway, Marc Leishman and Paul Casey.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 8-tournament window that stretches back to the Wyndham Championship and Nordea Masters includes PGA Tour, European Tour and web.com Playoff events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
- Driving Accuracy: 1) Ryan Armour / Ryan Moore / Chez Reavie / Kyle Stanley; 5) Brian Gay; 6) Billy Horschel; 7) Kevin Na / Scott Piercy; 9) Shubhankar Sharma; 10) Abraham Ancer; 11) Emiliano Grillo; 12) James Hahn; 13) C.T. Pan; 14) Austin Cook; 15) Charley Hoffman; 16) Paul Casey / Joel Dahmen / Ted Potter Jnr; 19) Rafa Cabrera-Bello; 20) Xander Schauffele.
- Greens in Regulation: 1) Billy Horschel; 2) Hideki Matsuyama; 3) Kyle Stanley; 4) Ernie Els; 5) Byeong-Hun An; 6) Adam Scott; 7) C.T. Pan; 8) Louis Oosthuizen / Gary Woodland; 10) James Hahn / Tyrrell Hatton / Brooks Koepka; 13) Rafa Cabrera-Bello / Charles Howell III / Patton Kizzire / Jason Kokrak / Marc Leishman; 18) Paul Casey / Cameron Smith; 20) Kyoung-Hoon Lee / Chez Reavie.
- Putting Average (Putts per GIR): 1) Kevin Na / Justin Thomas; 3) Sung-jae Im / Cameron Smith; 5) Hideki Matsuyama; 6) Jason Day / J.B. Holmes / Sung Kang; 9) Beau Hossler / Brian Stuard; 11) Marc Leishman; 12) Adam Hadwin / Gary Woodland; 14) Adam Scott / Brandt Snedeker; 16) Paul Casey / Xander Schauffele; 18) Austin Cook / Si Woo Kim / Kevin Tway.
Winners & Prices: 2017: Thomas 8/1. For a full summary of winner’s odds on the PGA Tour since 2010 click here.
• 2017: Thursday: Partly cloudy with a high of 66. Wind NE 10-15 mph. Friday: Partly cloudy with a high of 66. Wind NE 10-20 mph. Saturday: Mostly sunny with a high of 65. Wind NE 10-20 mph with gusts to 30 mph. Sunday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 63. Wind NE 15-25 mph.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Jeju Island, South Korea is here. Conditions change considerably from last week in Kuala Lumpur, where heat and humidity always prevails. Jeju is an island location in the Korea Straits, with weather that’s considerably colder than Malaysia. It would seem that we may well see firmer conditions here than last year, with no rain in the immediate build-up. Temperatures again will only reach a maximum of 18-19 degrees Celsius each day. The key here to scoring as we saw last year is strength of wind. Thursday looks difficult with gusts up to 20 mph, but Friday and Saturday looks far calmer with nothing over 10 mph. Sunday sees a slight increase, but again down on what we saw last year.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the top 2 finishers from last year here at Nine Bridges gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
- 2017, Justin Thomas (-9). 71.4% fairways (39th), 68.1% greens in regulation (44th), 52.2 % scrambling (34th), 1.74 putts per GIR (5th).
- 2017, Marc Leishman (-9). 70.8% fairways (32nd), 70.8% greens in regulation (36th), 47.6 % scrambling (43rd), 1.71 putts per GIR (1st).
Tournament Skill Averages:
- Driving Accuracy: 36th, Greens in Regulation: 40th, Scrambling: 39th, Putting Average 3rd.
So let’s take a view from players as to how Nine Bridges sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Justin Thomas (Thursday): “With my length, if I drive it well, I’ve had so many birdie opportunities today with the wind being in the direction and how light it was out there. Driving it well, I have a lot of birdie opportunities. I feel like when you have a wedge in your hand, it does not really take course knowledge to play it that well. It may help if you get out of position. From 110, 120 yards in the middle of the fairway, most courses are pretty similar. The day was a result of a good play, good driving, and capitalizing on early opportunities this morning.
A lot of it was the wind direction. Hole 13 being a little bit downwind today, I probably wouldn’t hit driver there to that pin usually because, I can get it far enough up in the bunker in the right or left to where I can chip off the green easily. I hit that driver about as perfectly as I could, and that definitely helps things. Drives like 18 is something if it’s into the wind, I won’t do. Again, being a little bit downwind I know that if I hit it solid at all, I just have to hit the right line and it’s a huge advantage to be able to do so. I think the big factor today was just the wind direction. Definitely I felt confident and good about where my game is as well.“
Justin Thomas (Saturday): “In terms of the wind, all of us have played in the wind this strong. It’s just that I’ve never played in a place where it bounces around and switches as much as it does here. I think because of all the trees, how often you are down going through the trees around the greens, it bounces off of them a lot. It really switches quite often. It’s really difficult to chip and putt because it’s true the fact that your putts can totally change the break with the wind changing or your chips can get up in the air and catch a gust and go one way or the other. It really is a huge difference. It is definitely one of the most difficult conditions I’ve played in.“
Marc Leishman: “The course is very good. It’s different to a lot of other Korean courses I’ve played. It’s a lot more generous off the tee, a lot wider. Greens are very good, it’s important to get it on the right section of the green. It’s a beautiful golf course.“
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for Justin Thomas last year:
- 2017 – Justin Thomas: Round 1: 1st, Round 2: 4th, Round 3: 1st.
Incoming form of winners since 2017:
- Justin Thomas: 17th CIMB/2nd Tour Champ/47th BMW/1st Dell.
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their wave and winning score since 2017.
- 2017 – Justin Thomas -9/63 – Group 4 of 13 – 10th Tee – 12/1
For the record, here’s the breakdown of pure Bentgrass green PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
- 4 – Jason Day.
- 3 – Ryan Moore, Adam Scott.
- 2 – Stewart Cink, Jason Dufner, Brian Harman, Brooks Koepka, Marc Leishman, Hideki Matsuyama, Kevin Na, Justin Thomas, Nick Watney.
- 1 – Jason Dufner, Ernie Els, Charley Hoffman, Billy Horschel, Michael Kim, Louis Oosthuizen, Rod Pampling, Ted Potter Jnr, Ian Poulter, Chez Reavie, Xander Schauffele, Charl Schwartzel, Brandt Snedeker, Kyle Stanley, Danny Willett.
As we saw on its debut, Nine Bridges with its fairly isolated position is renowned for being a very wind-affected course. North-easterly winds gusting up to 30 mph were a factor last year across 3 of the 4 days play. If we look at the results of the 4 LPGA events held here between 2002 and 2005 the winning scores look very different, based purely on the strength of wind:
- 2017 – Justin Thomas, -9/279
- 2005 – Ji-Young Lee, -5/211
- 2004 – Grace Park, -16/200
- 2003 – Shi-Hyun Ahn, -12/212
- 2002 – Si-Ri Pak, -3/213
With the forecast looking set to see lighter winds in the main, my personal view is that scoring will be considerably lower in 2018. Wind gusting up to 20mph on Thursday should see a relatively slow start in terms of scoring, but Friday and Saturday wind levels of sub-10mph turn Nine Bridges into what Chez Reavie described as an ‘extremely straightforward course’.
When it comes to scheduling – 3rd event of the new season – I’ve taken a look at the last 5 years since the PGA Tour moved to the wrap-around season concept and have looked at tournament winners to see what trends, if any, there are:
- 2013 CIMB Classic – Ryan Moore, week before finished 9th TPC Summerlin
- 2014 McGladrey Classic – Robert Streb , week before finished 10th TPC Summerlin
- 2015 CIMB Classic – Justin Thomas, 2 weeks before finished 3rd Silverado
- 2017 CJ Cup – Justin Thomas, week before finished 17th TPC KL
2016 featured the WGC-HSBC Champions and the alternate Sanderson Farms Championship across the same week:
- 2016 HSBC Champions Hideki Matsuyama, week before finished 2nd TPC KL
- 2016 Sanderson Farms Cody Gribble, 2 weeks before finished 8th Silverado
My selections are as follows:
Hideki Matsuyama 2pts EW 14/1
The big-2 in the form of Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka have their obvious merits. Thomas defends here at Nine Bridges, whilst Koepka arrives in South Korea after being announced as the PGA Tour Player of the Year. In Justin Thomas we have an 8/1 winner last year who prior to winning here had won twice at both the 2015 and 2016 CIMB Classic in Malaysia. Interestingly he went onto finish 4th on the Japan Tour’s Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in November 2016. That’s a tournament that Brooks has won in both 2016 and 2017, so both have excellent East Asia form. Both will also be motivated by the fact that they can grab the World Number 1 mantle this week, although that could ultimately be something which derails focus on actually winning the tournament.
For me I’m siding with Hideki Matsuyama from the top of the market on Jeju Island this week. The Japanese superstar kicks off his PGA Tour campaign after making a late decision to swerve the CIMB Classic where he’s had plenty of success. There were rumblings of an injury, but as he plays this week, he’s fit in my view. With that in mind, the Nine Bridges course should be perfect for him: 6th for Strokes Gained on Approach, 18th for Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 13th for Going for the Green across a 2018 PGA Tour campaign which largely disappointed is testament to how well the 26 year-old fits the task this week, and when you look at his career, he loves to harvest victories in the autumn. Wins at the 2016 Japan Open and WGC-HSBC Champions both came in October. Wins at the 2014 Dunlop Phoenix and the 2016 Taiheiyo Masters both came in November and we can add the 2013 Casio World Open and 2016 Hero World Challenge to the list, both captured in December. That’s right, Hideki tends to end the golfing year strongly. In fact I’ve counted 19 top-10 finishes across both the PGA and Japan Tours since 2013 for Hideki. And his record of 2nd-6th-1st-2nd-5th at the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament holds water for me as its geography on Kyushu island is noteworthy as it’s the most south-westerly island of Japan – i.e. the closest part of Japan to Jeju at around 150 miles.
Appearances directly after the Tour Championship in October have yielded 3rd-17th-1st-2nd-5th over the past 5 seasons and the World Number 22 must be looking to build on the momentum he gained throughout the FedEx Cup Playoffs where he finished 4th in Boston, 15th in Philadelphia and 4th in Atlanta. Result: T18
Gary Woodland 1pt EW 35/1
I’ll stick for a second week with Gary Woodland at 35/1 and the 7 places each-way with Paddy Power. The positives far outweigh the negatives from last week where he was 36 and 54-hole joint leader with eventual winner Marc Leishman. Sunday was disappointing, but check Gary’s career CV and you see that wins Number 1 (2011) and Number 3 (2018) came off a disappointing Sunday when in contention down the stretch at the previous tournament. Woodland’s game though is undoubtedly well-suited to Nine Bridges – aggressive Off the Tee (4th Strokes Gained), On Approach (21st Strokes Gained) and a strong wind player (ranks 16th in this field within our Predictor Model wind variable), he loves to take risks on approach (2nd for Going for the Green) and has course experience to boot – indeed his closing -3/69 on Sunday was tied-second best in the field. As I said last week, he’s been putting well (top 12 of our 8-week rolling Putts per GIR window) and naturally as a top-flight ball-striker, he’s finding plenty of greens in regulation. But it’s his leaning for the West Coast which I really like this week, when you read the result CVs of previous winners on Jeju Island, Oberholser and Thomas, plus of course Leishman who made the play off. Gary has always played well at Waialae (3rd 2015, 6th 2017, 7th 2018), Torrey Pines (a top 10 plus 3 top 20s), Pebble Beach (5th 2017) and has been a runner-up at PGA West and naturally won this year at TPC Scottsdale. Result: 2nd
Brandt Snedeker 1pt EW 50/1
I think from a course debutant perspective, Brandt Snedeker will also go well this week. Many players have stated that Jeju Island has that California coast feel to it; I also think that the course setting and the risk-reward element also feels very much like Kapalua. Kapalua is a course where putters come to the fore and in Snedeker we have a player who’s desperate to stay in the OWGR top 50 until the close of the year and who was runner-up as recently as Silverado. His record around Kapalua in 5 appearances sees no finish lower than 14th and includes a couple of 3rd places (2013 & 2016). Moving to Pebble Beach Snedeker is a 2-time winner (2013 & 2015) who also has a 4th (2017) and 8th there in the 2010 U.S. Open. Torrey Pines has also been a happy hunting ground: 2007: 3rd; 2008: 9th (U.S.Open); 2010: 2nd; 2011: 9th; 2012: 1st; 2013: 2nd; 2016: 1st; 2017: 9th. Thomas and Leishman have both featured at TPC Boston so I also like the look of Snedeker’s 5th (2010), 3rd (2011) and 6th (2012) place finishes at the Massachusetts inland links set-up. His record in the wind is well recognised, especially after that 2017 Torrey Pines win.
Naturally the loss at Silverado a fortnight ago must have hurt, but Brandt’s response on Twitter just after was informative, “No one to blame but myself.. I have to find a way to win today.. Can’t wait to tee it up next week in Malaysia.. Not going to let 9 bad holes make me forget about the other 63..I am going to get that 10th win soon!!” It may not have happened in Malaysia, but Nine Bridges should suit his eye perfectly. On a par driving distance-wise with Cameron Smith who came within a shot of making the play off here 12 months ago, Brandt is the sort who converts from within 125 yards brilliantly with his combined wedge and putting game. That facet of his game will be very useful on this course which offers-up plenty of short par-4s. Snedeker also travels well – a winner in Fiji, the World Number 46 has 6 top-11 finishes across China and Japan. Result: T36
Kyle Stanley 1pt EW 50/1
Kyle Stanley has been operating at a very high level and Nine Bridges, where he finished 19th last year, could be an opportunity to capture his 3rd PGA Tour title. 5th at the WGC-HSBC Champions, a Quarter Finalist at the WGC Dell Matchplay, 2nd at Memorial and 2nd at Firestone, current form of 13(CIMB)-15(Tour Champ)-45(BMW)-12(Dell) doesn’t overly do the World Number 27 justice. He was 4th after 54 holes at East Lake and 6th after 54 holes at TPC Boston. A closing -8/64 at the CIMB Classic was only matched by Justin Thomas and I like Stanley’s results CV which includes 2nd at Torrey Pines (2012), 6th at Quail Hollow (2013), 4th at TPC Sawgrass (2017), 2nd and 3rd at Muirfield Village (2018 & 2013) and 2nd at Firestone (2018). All tough, Major Championship golf courses where quality comes to the fore. He shot -4/68 to open here 12 months when finishing in the top 20 and Kyle is in better nick this time around. Has always been the sort who can reach a mid-teens total, which I think will be the key this week, and the calmer conditions can only aid his chances in my opinion. As short as 28/1 elsewhere I think 50/1 about him this week is an excellent price. Result: 66th
J.B. Holmes 1pt EW 66/1
The wide fairways of Nine Bridges and the fact that aggressive play is valuable around here plays into the hands of J.B. Holmes who’s playing some nice golf at the moment. 2018 was fairly successful for the Kentuckian, who finished 4th at Torrey Pines, 3rd at TPC Southwind and 2nd at TPC River Highlands. A spot back in the OWGR top-50 which he held across 2015 and 2016 must be a short-term target.
J.B. has started this season well with 9th at Silverado and a career-best 13th last week in Kuala Lumpur. He’s also the sort I like around here – an aggressive bomber – who’s putting very well. 6th in my 8-week Putts per GIR tracker, Holmes started to find a nice level of Fairways and Greens in Regulation in Malaysia and was 5th for All-Round last week. That makes him a danger here at Nine Bridges, on the basis that J.B. has plenty of correlating course form which works. A winner at Quail Hollow – as is Justin Thomas – Holmes is a perennial contender at Torrey Pines where Marc Leishman has been runner-up twice. A 2-time winner at TPC Scottsdale highlights a player very comfortable at altitude and a 3rd at Troon in the 2016 Open Championship again highlights a player who can handle, tough, windy conditions. Has course knowledge from 12 months ago when he was playing poorly, but this time around I can see the big-hitter playing very well. Result: T23
Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 08:45BST 16.10.18but naturally subject to fluctuation.