Steve Bamford

Steve Bamford's Zozo Championship Tips 2019

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Justin Thomas delivered a 15/2 winner for this column last week at the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges. I cannot find another single-digit favourite winning on the PGA Tour in 2019, and that highlights how competitive the main Tour has been. Now a 2-time winner of the CJ Cup with Brooks Koepka winning the 2018 renewal, we are talking about the 2017, 2018 and 2019 PGA Champions being the only winners to date on Jeju Island.

This week sees a new addition to the PGA Tour Asian Swing. The inaugural ZOZO Championship makes up the second of three legs and effectively replaces the CIMB Classic.  The tournament is the first event ever sanctioned by the PGA Tour in Japan in a deal that will last until at least 2025. Following on from the CJ Cup, this is another short-field 78 player, no cut event. It features the top 60 available PGA Tour players from last season’s FedEx Cup standings, the top 7 players in the current Japan Golf Tour money list, the top 3 players in the recent Bridgestone Open, plus 8 sponsor exemptions.

Course Guide: The Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club is just outside of Japan’s sprawling capital Tokyo. Set to East of the World’s biggest city near Chiba, Narashino CC has 3 full sets of 18 holes, namely the King, Kuko and Queen courses. The ZOZO Championship this week will play a composite layout on what is a typical Japanese course. Parkland in nature, the course is tree-lined, features plenty of doglegs and small putting surfaces.

Another Japanese golf course design feature is that many of the holes at Narashino feature 2 greens. ZOZO wanted to utilise this for the tournament, with different greens used across different days, and this will be a feature on the par-4 4th hole.

Narashino Country Club, Chiba, Japan: Designer: Kinya Fujita 1976, with PGA Tour (2016-19) renovations; Course Type: Parkland, Mid-Score; Par: 70; Length: 7,041 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 4; Fairways: Bentgrass; Rough: Zoysiagrass 2″; Greens: Bentgrass; Tournament Stimp: 10.5ft.

Course Overview: The Narashino Country Club will provide a typically Japanese test this week to some of the World’s best golfers. A short Par 70 at 7,041 yards, the course is instantly different based upon its format of 34 front / 36 back. The composite course is composed of 5 par-3s, 10 par-4s and 3 par-5s. Not your typical Par 70 format!  The par-5s come in at 587 yards (6th), 608 yards (14th) and 562 yards (18th), so in essence the 6th and 18th are reachable in theory to the longer hitters.

Another fascinating angle here at Narashino are the 10 par-4s, which are distinctly either short or punishingly long. I personally can’t recall a course where none of the par-4s measure between 426 yards and 485 yards, but this is exactly what we see here. Instead there are 5 holes which at sub-425 yards provide excellent birdie opportunities versus the other 50% which measure 505 yards (4th), 486 yards (9th), 486 yards (11th), 490 yards (12th) and 491 yards (17th). Hit a poor tee shot and players are going to severely struggle for par on these holes.

The course itself is undulating and set in beautiful Japanese parkland. A tree-lined venue, lines off the tee look moderately claustrophobic. There are 6 doglegs to add character, but in general the rough this week looks to be little real penalty. Putting surfaces are small in size, well defended by bunkers and feature Bentgrass.

But the aspect which will be new to many, including myself, are the twin greens at Narashino. This is a typical aspect of Japanese golf course design, with A and B greens, many featuring different grasses, so that foot traffic is managed over a golf season. For the ZOZO the par-4 4th hole, which is +500 yards, will see 2 greens in operation across the tournament. For the rest of the course, if approaches landed on the non-used greens surfaces, there will be a free drop on the nearest point of relief.

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.

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 Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Reed, Paul Casey, Byeong-Hun An, Sungjae Im and Shane Lowry.

Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on an 8-tournament window that stretches back to the European Masters and Korn Ferry Tour Championship, 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) Paul Casey; 2) Ryan Moore; 3) Andrew Putnam; 4) Chez Reavie; 5) Emiliano Grillo; 6) Keith Mitchell; 7) Vaughn Taylor; 8) Graeme McDowell / Ian Poulter; 10) Rafa Cabrera-Bello / Corey Conners / Viktor Hovland / Kevin Streelman; 14) Joel Dahmen; 15) Adam Long; 16) Matthew Fitzpatrick / Adam Hadwin; 18) Sergio Garcia / Billy Horschel; 20) C.T. Pan.
  • Greens in Regulation: 1) Adam Hadwin; 2) Justin Thomas; 3) Paul Casey; 4) Emiliano Grillo / Hideki Matsuyama; 6) Pat Perez; 7) Sergio Garcia; 8) Tommy Fleetwood; 9) Viktor Hovland; 10) Patrick Reed / Gary Woodland; 12) Tony Finau; 13) Corey Conners; 14) Rory McIlroy; 15) Billy Horschel; 16) Andrew Putnam / Chez Reavie; 18) Troy Merritt; 19) Matthew Fitzpatrick / Joaquin Niemann.
  • Top 20 Scrambling: 1) Kevin Na; 2) Billy Horschel; 3) Andrew Putnam; 4) Tony Finau; 5) Adam Schenk; 6) Sergio Garcia / Justin Thomas; 8) Patrick Reed; 9) Harold Varner III; 10) Abraham Ancer / Joaquin Niemann; 12) Rafa Cabrera-Bello; 13) Paul Casey / Joel Dahmen; 15) Hideki Matsuyama; 16) Ian Poulter / Adam Scott; 18) Graeme McDowell; 19) Dylan Frittelli; 20) Si Woo Kim.
  • Putting Average (Putts per GIR): 1) Nate Lashley / Justin Thomas; 3) Ryan Palmer; 4) Viktor Hovland; 5) Collin Morikawa; 6) Andrew Putnam; 7) Adam Hadwin; 8) Sungjae Im; 9) Vaughn Taylor; 10) Patrick Reed; 11) Adam Scott / Harold Varner III; 13) Kevin Na; 14) Ryan Moore / Kevin Tway; 16) Tony Finau; 17) Adam Long / Gary Woodland; 19) Wyndham Clark; 20) Matthew Fitzpatrick.

Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Chiba, Japan is here. The Narashino Course looked soft during The Challenge Japan Skins won by Jason Day and as I write this preview on Monday, the area is under rain, which continues through the vast proportion of Tuesday. So I’m expecting a soft course on Thursday, and further rain cannot be ruled out across Friday or Saturday.

15-25 mph winds will also be a feature across both Thursday and Friday, so I don’t see this being an easy task prior to a softening of the wind during Saturday afternoon. The course will undoubtedly yield the best scores on Sunday when conditions are benign, although further rain is possible. Like last week in South Korea, temperatures will be Northern European at 21 – 23 degrees Celsius.

For the record, here’s the breakdown of pure Bentgrass green PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:

  • 6 – Rory McIlroy.
  • 5 – Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods.
  • 4 – Jason Day, Kevin Na, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson.
  • 3 – Ryan Moore, Adam Scott.
  • 2 – Keegan Bradley, Sergio Garcia, Lucas Glover, Marc Leishman, Hideki Matsuyama, Troy Merritt, Patrick Reed, Xander Schauffele.
  • 1 – Dylan Frittelli, Billy Horschel, Kevin Kisner, Danny Lee, Joaquin Niemann, Louis Oosthuizen, Ian Poulter, Chez Reavie, Rory Sabbatini, Kevin Streelman, Matthew Wolff.

The biggest prize in Japanese golf history sees a superb field gather for the inaugural ZOZO Championship. In World Ranking Order Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele, Tiger Woods, Tony Finau, Paul Casey, Adam Scott, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Reed, Gary Woodland, Shane Lowry, Kevin Na, Louis Oosthuizen, Marc Leishman, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Hideki Matsuyama, Jason Day, Kevin Kisner, Chez Reavie, Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Billy Horschel, Rafa Cabrera Bello and Jordan Spieth all play. Let’s face it, it’s stacked!

Host course Narashino Country Club has virtually no tournament history at all that is relevant to work from. It was the venue for the Suntory Open between 1973 and 1997. 2016 saw Prayad Marksaeng win the Japan Senior Open. The popular Thai player has also won the 2008 Dunlop Phoenix Tournament hosted at the Phoenix Country Club in Japan, and the 2017 Singapore Open, played at Sentosa Golf Club. Singapore was a European Tour event between 2009 -2012, won by Ian Poulter (2009) and Adam Scott (2010). Back on the calendar these days as a dual Asian/Japan Tour tournament, the tournament has been won by Sergio Garcia (2018) and Jazz Janewattananond (2019), with Jordan Spieth (2016), Paul Casey (2019) and Matthew Fitzpatrick (2019) all finishing in the top 4 around Sentosa Golf Club.

Another point to note for this tournament could well be the strength and direction of the wind. Although the course is short at just a smidge over 7,000 yards, 2 of the par-5s potentially could well be 3 shot holes across both Thursday and Friday. That undoubtedly negates ‘bomb and gouge’ around here and highlights a requirement for excellent short-distance wedge play once again, as per last week.

My selections are as follows:

Xander Schauffele 2pts EW 25/1 (6EW, 1/5) with Unibet

Xander Schauffele has always been a lover of no-cut tournaments and a ‘mini-Major’ in Japan could be something that really appeals to him. A week prior to his WGC-HSBC Champions defence in Shanghai, Xander will be looking to hit the ground running and his form both recent and CV-wise is worthy of further interest. A winner both in September (2017 Tour Championship) and October (2018 WGC-HSBC Champions) on the PGA Tour, Schauffele’s form in the FedEx Cup Playoffs back in August was undoubtedly peaking. Opening rounds of 67-68 at Medinah Number 3 had him in 5th spot after 36 holes at the BMW Championship, where he eventually finished 19th after he realised Justin Thomas was too far ahead to realistically catch. And that is the point with Xander who we have christened on the Golf Betting System podcast as ‘Brooks Light’ – he really isn’t too fussed about smaller tournaments and if he thinks he’s too far behind to win, interest falls away.

Fast forward to the next week and the Tour Championship at East Lake where he finished 2nd behind Rory McIlroy, pocketing a cool $5 million into the bargain. Xander undoubtedly is a competitor who focuses on the bigger prizes and I think the ZOZO Championship this week will peak his interest. 2nd behind Brooks Koepka on his last visit to Japan at the 2017 Dunlop Phoenix Tournament highlights a golfer who’s comfortable on these shores and winning Japan’s biggest ever tournament could well light-up the 4-time PGA Tour winner’s game, which saw him rank 2nd for Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 3rd for All-Round at East Lake last time out on the PGA Tour. Result: T10

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Gary Woodland 2pts EW 33/1 (6EW, 1/5) with Unibet

Gary Woodland enjoys his forays to the Far East and after his post-U.S. Open hangover his performances are now starting to improve. Always a frequent flyer to Asia, Gary has finished 2nd (2013), 2nd (2014) and 5th (2018) at TPC Kuala Lumpur – home of the CIMB Classic in Malaysia.  2011 saw Woodland in partnership with Matt Kuchar win the World Cup of Golf on Hainan Island in China. And 3 trips to South Korea have now garnered 2nd (2018) and 3rd (2019) at the CJ Cup. That’s a superb return for a player whose ball-striking is returning to its very best right now. Woodland now travels to Japan, a country he has experience of having finished 35th at the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in 2011 – his breakout year where he captured his first PGA Tour title at Copperhead.

There is undoubtedly room in my ZOZO Championship team for a player whose power allows him to club down effectively on these shorter courses. Woodland ranked 19th for SG Off the Tee, 20th for SG on Approach and 16th for SG Tee to Green last season on the PGA Tour, and after 2 average rounds last week on Jeju Island, the putter finally warmed on the weekend, firing at 1.688 Putts per GIR. 14 birdies and a single bogey was eye-catching across Saturday/Sunday and Gary was 2nd in the field for par-4 Scoring throughout the tournament, second only to Justin Thomas. Quietly, Gary is peaking again and with Tiger Woods on the property this week, a win for the reigning U.S. Open champion in Japan would make a Captain’s Pick selection for Team USA in the President’s Cup almost impossible to refuse. Result: 5th

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Matthew Fitzpatrick 1.5pts EW 40/1 (6EW, 1/5) with Unibet

Matthew Fitzpatrick has never played in Japan, but his record in this part of Asia is eye-catching. 4th at this year’s Singapore Open, the World Number 26 has also finished 3rd (2015), 19th (2017) and 2nd (2018) at Fanling in Hong Kong. Trips to mainland China have also landed 6th at the 2014 Foshan Open on the European Challenge Tour and at WGC level he’s finished 7th (2015) and 9th (2017) at Sheshan International in Shanghai.

You feel that 2019 has been a huge development year, where his relatively new partnership with caddy Billy Foster is undoubtedly improving results. 4th in Singapore in January, Matthew has produced 3 runner-up finishes on the European Tour in 2019 across the BMW International Open (June), Scandinavian Invitation (August) and the Italian Open (October). And don’t think that his best results have only come in Europe as Fitz has established himself now on the PGA Tour thanks to 2nd at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, 12th at the U.S. Open in June and 4th at the WGC-St Jude Invitational in July.

That level of comfort now on the PGA Tour is encouraging when it comes to taking his first win on the world’s biggest Tour and it’s well worth remembering that it’s a level playing field at Narashino this week with none of the PGA Tour stars having course experience. Confident and in great nick, I think Fitzpatrick’s superb short-distance wedge game could come into its own in windy conditions this week. Result: 75th

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Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 17:45BST 21.10.19 but naturally subject to fluctuation.