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.
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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: