Congratulations to those of you who landed on Lanto Griffin last week in Houston at a best price of 60/1 pre-event. The tournament was little better than a Korn Ferry Tour event, and so Griffin took his opportunity to land a life-changing prize, coming into the event with 4 consecutive top-20 finishes across the new 2019/20 season. This column landed a second consecutive full each-way return on Harris English at 40/1 with Paddy Power. Definitely a case where the 8 places each-way with them paid off, avoiding the dreaded ties reduction.
We move onto the 1st leg of the PGA Tour Asian swing. The CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges is being played in South Korea for the third time and features a strong enough 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 across the initial 2 renewals here we’ve seen Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka emerge as the victors. With an increased $9.75 million purse this week, which is the joint-biggest player fund (in tandem with next week’s inaugural ZOZO Championship in Japan), outside of the Majors and WGCs this season, a number of lower-ranked players are keen on attending this tournament to maximise both income and FedEx Cup points in this no-cut tournament.
The CJ Cup field comprises 78 attendees including the top-60 available players from the closing 2019 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.
Course Guide: The Club at Nine Bridges has proved to be a very popular addition to the PGA Tour. 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: 7,241 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 5; Fairways: Bentgrass; Rough: Bentgrass, overseeded with Kentucky Bluegrass 2″; Greens: 7,800 sq.ft average Pennlinks Bentgrass; Tournament Stimp: 10.5ft. Course Scoring Average 2017: 73.19 (+1.19), Difficulty Rank 4 of 51. 2018: 70.95 (-1.05), Difficulty Rank 31 of 49 courses.
Course Overview: The Club at Nine Bridges is situated 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. For me it has slight associations with Kapalua on Maui and this link certainly works with Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka winning on this course, from Marc Leishman and Gary Woodland. All have strong associations with the Plantation Course at Kapalua.
A couple of factors become really obvious from the tournaments held here. The course plays as difficult as the wind blows. On our first visit here in 2017, in benign conditions, Justin Thomas shot a superb -9/63 to lead on Thursday. 2018 saw Ryan Palmer shoot a -10/62 on Sunday, with Adam Scott and Gary Woodland delivering -9/63s as well. 2017 saw 20-30 mph north-easterly winds across Friday to Sunday. The scoring average was 73.19 making Nine Bridges the 4th toughest course on the PGA Tour that season. With benign conditions across Friday to Sunday last year, the Scoring Average was 70.95 and the difficulty rank freefell to 31st toughest course of 49.
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 triumph. The closing par-5 is 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 reminds me slightly of the closing par-5 18th at Kapalua.
Winners: 2018: Brooks Koepka (-21); 2017: Justin Thomas (-9).
Tournament Stats: We’ve published some key player statistics for this week’s event that are well worth a look. Naturally they’ll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Combined Stats.
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, Hideki Matsuyama, Jason Day, Gary Woodland, Tommy Fleetwood, Luke List, Jazz Janewattananond, Byeong-Hun An and Joaquin Niemann.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on an 8-tournament window that stretches back to the Tour Championship, Scandinavian Invitation and Boise Open, across the PGA Tour, European Tour and Korn Ferry 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) Corey Conners / Chez Reavie; 3) Ryan Moore; 4) Graeme McDowell; 5) Brian Stuard; 6) C.T. Pan; 7) Emiliano Grillo; 8) Lucas Glover; 9) Tommy Fleetwood; 10) Hideki Matsuyama / Ian Poulter; 12) Sergio Garcia; 13) Sungjae Im; 14) Rafa Cabrera-Bello / Vaughn Taylor; 16) Joel Dahmen / Viktor Hovland / Adam Long / Kevin Streelman; 20) Gary Woodland.
- Greens in Regulation: 1) Sergio Garcia / Pat Perez; 3) Emiliano Grillo; 4) Justin Thomas; 5) Hideki Matsuyama; 6) Viktor Hovland / C.T. Pan / Chez Reavie; 9) Chesson Hadley; 10) Tommy Fleetwood; 11) Gary Woodland; 12) Corey Conners; 13) Branden Grace / Brooks Koepka; 15) Joaquin Niemann; 16) Brian Stuard; 17) Troy Merritt; 18) Sung Kang; 19) Adam Long; 20) Rafa Cabrera-Bello / Ian Poulter.
- Top 20 Scrambling: 1) Kevin Na; 2) Adam Schenk; 3) Harold Varner III; 4) Justin Thomas; 5) Rafa Cabrera-Bello; 6) Sergio Garcia / Hideki Matsuyama; 8) Abraham Ancer; 9) Joaquin Niemann; 10) Joel Dahmen / Danny Willett; 12) Collin Morikawa / Brian Stuard; 14) Tommy Fleetwood; 15) Dylan Frittelli / Si Woo Kim; 17) Viktor Hovland; 18) Marc Leishman / Graeme McDowell; 20) Brooks Koepka.
- Putting Average (Putts per GIR): 1) Nate Lashley; 2) Justin Thomas; 3) Viktor Hovland; 4) Vaughn Taylor; 5) Collin Morikawa; 6) Sungjae Im; 7) Chez Reavie; 8) Charles Howell III; 9) Brooks Koepka; 10) Adam Long; 11) Cameron Smith; 12) Dylan Frittelli / Kevin Na / Harold Varner III; 15) Kevin Tway; 16) Gary Woodland; 17) Phil Mickelson; 18) Ryan Moore; 19) Danny Willett; 20) Tyrrell Hatton.
Recent Player Strokes Gained Rankings: These top 20 in the field rankings are based on an 8-tournament window that stretches back to the Tour Championship and Scandinavian Invitation, which includes both PGA and European Tour 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:
- Top 20 SG Off The Tee: 1) Sergio Garcia; 2) Corey Conners; 3) Rafa Cabrera-Bello; 4) Sungjae Im; 5) Sung Kang / Justin Thomas / Gary Woodland; 8) Tommy Fleetwood; 9) Ian Poulter; 10) Harold Varner III; 11) Brooks Koepka / Joaquin Niemann; 13) Joel Dahmen; 14) Adam Long / Hideki Matsuyama; 16) Ryan Moore; 17) Emiliano Grillo; 18) Tyrrell Hatton; 19) Jhonattan Vegas; 20) Chez Reavie.
- Top 20 SG Approach: 1) Sergio Garcia; 2) Collin Morikawa; 3) Adam Long; 4) Justin Thomas; 5) Tyrrell Hatton; 6) Tommy Fleetwood; 7) Chez Reavie; 8) Corey Conners; 9) Sungjae Im; 10) Joaquin Niemann; 11) Marc Leishman; 12) Emiliano Grillo; 13) Joel Dahmen / Kevin Tway; 15) Rafa Cabrera-Bello / Dylan Frittelli / Hideki Matsuyama / Gary Woodland; 19) Rory Sabbatini; 20) Danny Lee / Pat Perez.
- Top 20 SG Around The Green: 1) Justin Thomas; 2) Dylan Frittelli; 3) Harold Varner III; 4) Joel Dahmen; 5) Hideki Matsuyama; 6) Kevin Tway / Gary Woodland; 8) Emiliano Grillo / Charles Howell III; 10) Ian Poulter; 11) Chesson Hadley / Sergio Garcia; 13) Rafa Cabrera-Bello / Brian Stuard; 15) Nate Lashley / Phil Mickelson; 17) Abraham Ancer; 18) Brooks Koepka / Chez Reavie; 20) Tommy Fleetwood.
- Top 20 SG Tee to Green: 1) Sergio Garcia; 2) Justin Thomas; 3) Joel Dahmen; 4) Tommy Fleetwood; 5) Corey Conners; 6) Emiliano Grillo; 7) Dylan Frittelli; 8) Adam Long; 9) Tyrrell Hatton; 10) Rafa Cabrera-Bello / Collin Morikawa / Gary Woodland; 13) Chez Reavie; 14) Hideki Matsuyama; 15) Harold Varner III; 16) Brian Stuard; 17) Joaquin Niemann; 18) Sung Kang; 19) Chesson Hadley; 20) Ian Poulter.
- Top 20 SG Putting: 1) Kevin Na; 2) Sungjae Im; 3) Justin Thomas; 4) Max Homa; 5) Charles Howell III; 6) Cameron Smith; 7) Rafa Cabrera-Bello / Adam Schenk; 9) Nate Lashley / Pat Perez; 11) Troy Merritt; 12) Tommy Fleetwood; 13) Kevin Tway; 14) Brooks Koepka / Rory Sabbatini; 16) Kevin Streelman; 17) Wyndham Clark; 18) Collin Morikawa; 19) Marc Leishman; 20) Lucas Glover / Gary Woodland.
- Top 20 SG Total: 1) Justin Thomas; 2) Sergio Garcia; 3) Adam Long; 4) Sungjae Im; 5) Kevin Na / Tommy Fleetwood; 7) Rafa Cabrera-Bello; 8) Collin Morikawa; 9) Dylan Frittelli / Harold Varner III; 11) Cameron Smith; 12) Joel Dahmen; 13) Chez Reavie; 14) Hideki Matsuyama; 15) Gary Woodland; 16) Corey Conners; 17) Brian Stuard; 18) Kevin Tway / Adam Schenk; 20) Nate Lashley.
Winners & Prices: 2018: Koepka 10/1; 2017: Thomas 8/1.
- 2018: Thursday: Mostly sunny. High of 55. Wind NW 15-25 mph. Friday: Mostly sunny. High of 56. Wind N 10-20 mph. Saturday: Mostly sunny. High of 58. Wind ENE 6-12 mph. Sunday: Partly sunny. High of 59. Wind ENE 5-10 mph.
- 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. 2017 here saw strong winds muting the scoring considerably. Last year saw up to 25 mph winds in-play on Thursday, followed by 3 days of pretty benign conditions. And I think 2019 will very much follow on from that. Temperatures again will only reach a maximum of 20-21 degrees Celsius each day. Very northern European. And as we know the key here to scoring is strength of wind. With nothing stronger than 15mph forecast, and that’s only on Friday, expect birdies for those with the right game for here.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the last 2 CJ Cup winners gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
- 2018, Brooks Koepka (-21). 73.2% fairways (42nd), 77.8% greens in regulation (23rd), 62.5% scrambling (20th), 1.75 putts per GIR (20th).
- 2017, Justin Thomas (-9). 71.4% fairways (39th), 68.1% greens in regulation (44th), 52.2 % scrambling (34th), 1.74 putts per GIR (5th).
Tournament Skill Averages:
- Driving Accuracy: 41st, Greens in Regulation: 34th, Scrambling: 27th, Putting Average 13th.
So let’s take a view from players as to how Nine Bridges sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Brooks Koepka (2018 Thursday): “I mean, we knew the ball was going to be blowing around. It’s tough on these greens. These greens are actually quite quick and if you start downhill downwind, it’s actually quite tough to get the ball to stop. The ninth hole there, I mean, I didn’t have a chance of stopping that putt on the green. But it’s difficult to make putts and you’re always trying to leave yourself into the wind so you can give yourself a good run or a good luck.”
Brooks Koepka (2018 Friday): “Yeah, I think if the wind keeps in this direction I think you can definitely take advantage. No. 8 becomes drivable. You hit a couple par 5s downwind and you can really take advantage of it. If it’s blowing a little bit harder, obviously you don’t get as many crosswinds, but this golf course, if there’s no wind you can definitely take advantage of it. It just brings driver into play for me a little bit more and I can fire away.”
Justin Thomas (2017 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 (2017 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 the last 2 CJ Cup winners:
- 2018 – Brooks Koepka: Round 1: 11th, Round 2: 2nd, Round 3: 1st.
- 2017 – Justin Thomas: Round 1: 1st, Round 2: 4th, Round 3: 1st.
Shots From the Lead: Below are the last 2 winners and where they were positioned in terms of shots from the lead during the tournament:
- 2018 – Brooks Koepka: Round 1: 1 3 back, Round 2: 1 back, Round 3: 3 ahead.
- 2017 – Justin Thomas: Round 1: 3 ahead, Round 2: 2 back, Round 3: level.
Incoming form of winners since 2017:
- Brooks Koepka: 7th Dunhill Links/ 26th Tour Champ/19th BMW/12th Dell.
- 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. For full first round leader stats click here.
- 2018 – Chez Reavie -4/68 – Group 8 of 13 – 10th Tee – 80/1
- 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:
- 5 – Jordan Spieth.
- 4 – Jason Day, Kevin Na.
- 3 – Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Ryan Moore, Kevin Na, Justin Thomas.
- 2 – Sergio Garcia, Lucas Glover, Marc Leishman, Hideki Matsuyama, Troy Merritt, Jhonattan Vegas, Nick Watney.
- 1 – Dylan Frittelli, Charley Hoffman, Billy Horschel, Danny Lee, Joaquin Niemann, Michael Kim, Ian Poulter, Chez Reavie, Rory Sabbatini, Kevin Streelman, Danny Willett, Matthew Wolff.
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 in 2017 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:
- 2018 – Brooks Koepka, -21/267
- 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 2019. 2018 saw a tough Thursday, with lower scores from that point as the wind subsided. However the weather looks even better in 2019, with little wind forecast and lush turf conditions in-play. We could see the lowest scoring renewal to date.
My selections are as follows: