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Yet another runner-up spot for this column – that’s 3 from the last 4 PGA Tour events – with Collin Morikawa (16/1) falling a single shot shy of Rory McIlroy at the CJ Cup. If you were on Rory at what seems to be his magical price-point of 22/1, good for you!
This week we return to Japan for the ZOZO Championship. This is the third running of the ZOZO and the second in Japan, after the success of 2019. Let’s be honest, Tiger Woods winning the first ever PGA Tour sanctioned event in Japan was the stuff of legend. 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, and a host of the Japan Golf Tour’s best talent. With a $9.95 million prize fund, it’s the richest tournament of the Fall section of the 2021/22 Tour season.
It’s a much weaker field this year as opposed to the inaugural event won by Tiger Woods in 2019, and that’s understandable after a busy 2021 and in these Covid travel-restrictive times. But the field is still headed by the likes of Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele, Hideki Matsuyama and Joaquin Niemann from the world’s top 30 players.
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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 planet’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, featuring 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 like 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: Zoysiagrass; Rough: Zoysiagrass 2″; Greens: Bentgrass; Tournament Stimp: 10.5ft. Scoring Average: 2019: 69.52 (-0.48), Course Difficulty 15 of 41 courses.
Course Overview: The Narashino Country Club will provide a typically Japanese test this week, as we saw back in 2019. A short Par 70 at 7,041 yards, the course is instantly different based upon its 34 front / 36 back format. The composite course is composed of 5 par-3s, 10 par-4s and 3 par-5s. Not your typical Par 70 then. The par-5s come in at 587 yards (6th) and 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. Players in 2019 referenced Chapultepec where the WGC-Mexico Championship from 2017 to 2020 was hosted. There are 6 doglegs to add character, but in general the rough is little real penalty. Putting surfaces are small in size, well defended by bunkers and feature Bentgrass. Green complexes are also contoured, making target areas very small for approach shots.
Narashino Country Club also features Zoysiagrass fairways and rough. Zoysiagrass is a relative rarity on the PGA Tour. Think TPC Southwind (WGC St Jude Invitational and before that the St Jude Classic) and East Lake (Tour Championship) as the regular PGA Tour stop offs featuring this kind of grass, which is renowned for its springy nature. The AT&T Byron Nelson played at both Trinity Forest (2018/19) and TPC Craig Ranch (2021) have also featured Zoysiagrass. Plenty of professionals claim it promotes flyers, whilst others like the way the ball tends to sit-up on it. Either way, it’s another research angle to attack.
The final unique, to the PGA Tour anyway, aspect we find at Narashino are the twin greens. 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 land on the non-used greens surfaces, there will be a free drop on the nearest point of relief.
Winners: Hosted at Sherwood CC: 2020: Patrick Cantlay (-23); Hosted at Narashino CC: 2019: Tiger Woods (-19).
You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 10 of my published predictor are Xander Schauffele, Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Collin Morikawa, Emiliano Grillo, Charley Hoffman, Tommy Fleetwood, Keegan Bradley, Jhonattan Vegas and Chris Kirk.
Historical Weather: 2019: Thursday: Cloudy. High of 69. Wind ENE 10-15 mph. Friday: The start of the second round was postponed on Friday due to intense rains and thunderstorms. The nearest reporting station measured 9.79 inches of rain on Friday. Saturday: Sunny. High of 72. Wind NNW 4-8 mph. Preferred lies were in effect for the second round. For safety reason, spectators were not permitted to be on site for the second round. Sunday: Cloudy. High of 72. Wind N 5-10 mph. The third round began at 6:30am on Sunday, with players in groups of three starting of tees 1 and 10. Final-round tee times ran from 12:00pm – 2:00pm – Monday finish. Monday: Mostly Cloudy. High of 60. Wind NNE 5-10 mph.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Chiba, Japan is here.
Many will remember this tournament for 3 reasons from 2019. Tiger Woods was victorious, the fantastic Japanese crowd, and more than 6 inches (152 mm) of rain from tropical storm Bualoi, which wiped out Friday play. 2021 thankfully looks far calmer but colder. Temperatures as low as 13 degrees Celsius on Friday aren’t what the PGA Tour pros are used to – with nothing warmer than 19 degrees Celsius expected. Wind will be mild breezes at most and I’m expecting a lush, soft course throughout.
Player Strokes Gained Rankings: These top 25 in the field rankings are based on an 8-tournament window that stretches back to the BMW Championship / Omega European Masters which includes PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players’ rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Top 25 SG Off The Tee: 1) Jhonattan Vegas; 2) Emiliano Grillo; 3) Maverick McNealy; 4) Matt Jones; 5) Xander Schauffele; 6) K.H. Lee; 7) Si Woo Kim / Erik van Rooyen / Will Zalatoris; 10) Luke List; 11) Ryan Palmer; 12) Hideki Matsuyama / Collin Morikawa; 14) Rickie Fowler; 15) Brendan Steele; 16) Alex Noren; 17) Carlos Ortiz; 18) Harry Higgs; 19) Joaquin Niemann; 20) Tommy Fleetwood; 21) Chris Kirk; 22) Keegan Bradley; 23) Wyndham Clark; 24) Troy Merritt; 25) James Hahn / Roger Sloan.
Top 25 SG Approach: 1) C.T. Pan; 2) Collin Morikawa; 3)Xander Schauffele; 4) Jhonattan Vegas; 5) Tom Hoge; 6) Chris Kirk; 7) Hideki Matsuyama; 8) Carlos Ortiz; 9) Matthew NeSmith / Joaquin Niemann; 11) Peter Malnati / Adam Schenk / Will Zalatoris; 14) Tommy Fleetwood; 15) K.H. Lee; 16) Henrik Norlander; 17) Keegan Bradley / Erik van Rooyen; 19) Luke List; 20) Kyle Stanley; 21) Doug Ghim / Matt Jones; 23) Emiliano Grillo / James Hahn / Sung Kang / Cameron Tringale.
Top 25 SG Around The Green: 1) Henrik Norlander; 2) Tommy Fleetwood / Chris Kirk; 4) Matt Jones / Alex Noren; 6) Harry Higgs / Hideki Matsuyama; 8) Rickie Fowler / Mackenzie Hughes / Joaquin Niemann / Xander Schauffele; 12) Roger Sloan; 13) Collin Morikawa; 14) Charley Hoffman; 15) Jhonattan Vegas; 16) Maverick McNealy; 17) Tom Hoge / Peter Malnati; 19) Brendan Grace; 20) Cameron Tringale; 21) K.H. Lee / Brendan Steele; 23) Bill Haas / Luke List / Ryan Palmer.
Top 25 SG Tee to Green: 1) Tommy Fleetwood; 2) C.T. Pan / Jhonattan Vegas; 4) Chris Kirk / Xander Schauffele; 6) K.H. Lee / Henrik Norlander; 8) Collin Morikawa; 9) Luke List / Hideki Matsuyama; 11) Will Zalatoris; 12) Matt Jones; 13) Joaquin Niemann; 14) Tom Hoge; 15) Maverick McNealy / Alex Noren; 17) Rickie Fowler; 18) Peter Malnati; 19) Emiliano Grillo / Si Woo Kim; 21) James Hahn; 22) Carlos Ortiz; 23) Charley Hoffman; 24) Erik van Rooyen; 25) Harry Higgs.
Top 25 SG Putting: 1) Mackenzie Hughes; 2) C.T. Pan; 3) Brendon Todd; 4) Adam Long; 5) Alex Noren; 6) Xander Schauffele; 7) Collin Morikawa; 8) Cameron Tringale; 9) Troy Merritt / Adam Schenk / Robert Streb; 12) Sung Kang / Jhonattan Vegas; 14) Harry Higgs; 15) Joaquin Niemann; 16) Erik van Rooyen; 17) Lanto Griffin; 18) Brendan Steele; 19) Tommy Fleetwood; 20) Tyler McCumber; 21) Branden Grace / K.H. Lee; 23) Rickie Fowler / Maverick McNealy; 25) Keegan Bradley / Charley Hoffman.
Top 25 SG Total: 1) C.T. Pan; 2) Tommy Fleetwood; 3) Xander Schauffele; 4) Jhonattan Vegas; 5) Alex Noren; 6) Rickie Fowler; 7) Collin Morikawa; 8) Chris Kirk; 9) Matt Jones / K.H. Lee; 11) Joaquin Niemann; 12) Mackenzie Hughes; 13) Harry Higgs; 14) Brendan Steele; 15) Maverick McNealy; 16) Adam Schenk / Will Zalatoris; 18) Tom Hoge / Charley Hoffman / Troy Merritt; 21) Cameron Tringale; 22) Erik van Rooyen; 23) Si Woo Kim / Emiliano Grillo; 25) Hideki Matsuyama.
Traditional Skill Set Trends: Analysing the final stats of 2019 ZOZO Championship top 2 finishers gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test – worthy of note that driving distance was not captured:
1st, Tiger Woods (-19). 65.4% fairways (7th), 76.4% greens in regulation (3rd), 64.7% scrambling (26th), 1.64 putts per GIR (2nd).
2nd, Hideki Matsuyama (-16). 57.7% fairways (29th), 75.0% greens in regulation (7th), 66.7% scrambling (19th), 1.63 putts per GIR (1st).
So let’s take a view from players as to how Narashino Country Club sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Tiger Woods (2019):”This grass, Zoysia, man, you can get some serious flyers out here, monster flyers. The one I hit on the last hole, we were trying to hit an 8-iron 200 yards and hit it 200. That’s not something I normally do.”
Rory McIlroy (2019):” I feel like it’s either you have like there’s a lot of short par 4s, under 400 yards but then there’s a lot of par 4s that are between 490 and sort of 510. So you’ve got some real tough par 4s, you’ve got par 4s you can score on. The par 3s, two of the par 3s you can, they’re short irons and then a couple of the par 3s are longer. I think the golf course has got a lot of variety.
There’s quite a few wedges into par 4s but then there’s a couple holes today that I hit a 4 and a 5-iron into them. I guess there’s a stretch on the back nine which is pretty tough as well. But it’s a great course. It’s in great condition, the greens are so pure, and it sort of reminds me a little bit of the course we play in Mexico, Chapultepec. Reminds me a little bit of that, just sort of the tree lined and sort of the doglegs and having to sort of cut off corners and stuff, but I like it.
Played pretty well, but the setup of the golf course this afternoon was really tough. The pins were all tucked away, they were on little slopes, sort of found it hard to get close to the holes. You’re hitting it to 20 feet, it’s hard to hole putts on those greens because they’re so slopey and you’re having to give them two or three feet of break every time.”
Collin Morikawa (2019): “It’s very different than what I’ve seen before, especially on the PGA Tour this last summer. It’s a lot more narrow, the fairways are a lot smaller as compared to last week. What freaked me out was the double greens. I was a little surprised, I thought I was hitting one green but turns out the hole was on another one. But I loved it. The greens are amazing. Obviously with the rain it’s going to be pretty soft. Hitting these small greens and getting off the tee in the fairway, will be the keys this week.”
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 2 ZOZO winners:
To this point, we’ve had 2 winners of the ZOZO Championship. Pre-Covid pandemic, the inaugural ZOZO held here at Narashino Country Club was won by Tiger Woods. He was a 33/1 chance. Inactive for 10 weeks, Tiger had relatively flat inbound from of 37/WD/MC/21 but naturally had won the 2019 Masters.
The 2020 ZOZO was held at Sherwood Country Club in California in the build-up to the November Masters. Patrick Cantlay won at 28/1. Cantlay was a non-winner in 2020 but had shown a little form following on from a disappointing FedEx Cup Playoff campaign, where he didn’t make the Tour Championship. 43rd at the U.S. Open was followed by 8th at the Shriners Open, where Patrick had led after 36 and 54 holes. 38th at the CJ Cup the week before was low-key, but Cantlay had closed with a promising -5/67.
Back in Japan in 2021, Narashino Country Club will be the host course again. It was the venue for the Suntory Open between 1973 and 1997. But there could well be an angle from 2016 which saw Prayad Marksaeng win the Japan Senior Open. The popular Thai player had won the 2008 Dunlop Phoenix Tournament hosted at the Phoenix Country Club in Japan, and was runner-up again there in 2017.
Carrying this Narashino / Phoenix Country Club line of enquiry forward to the 2019 ZOZO, winner Tiger Woods won the Dunlop Phoenix titles back in 2004 and 2005 and was runner-up there in 2006. Hideki Matsuyama finished runner-up in 2019, 3 shots back of Woods. His Phoenix Country Club record includes 2nd (2012), 6th (2013), 1st (2014), 2nd (2015), 5th (2017) and 8th (2019).
I always get the feeling with Xander that he targets particular high-profile tournaments and attempts to peak for them in particular, and despite his Olympic Gold accomplished here in Japan, I still think Xander has unfinished business – that being no PGA Tour victory since January 2019. Where better to get that than playing in front of his family here at Narashino Country Club, and when it comes to separating the top 3 in the betting this week, that desire to get a long-awaited PGA Tour victory could just swing it for the 27 year-old.
Last week at The Summit saw Xander finish a non-descript 18th place and in a lot of ways it follows a pretty solid pattern prior to Schauffele wins. Wins, and I include his 72-hole 2020 Tour Championship best score performance within this for completeness, have come off of preceding results of 35/20/48/16/25/26. 4 of the 6 came when Xander played the week before and Schauffele always fires in a low round either Saturday or Sunday. Check out his Open Championship Sunday 65 prior to winning the Olympics as the latest example. He always shoots a final round in the 60s the outing before triumphing. Uncanny but true!
18th at The Summit last week saw him play with an ice cold putter, but that changed on Sunday. A final round -9/63 was the result across 18 holes where he ranked 5th for Strokes Gained Tee to Green and 13th for Strokes Gained Putting. Across the week Xander was positive across all skill sets – the first time he’s done that since the Olympics.
And that brings us to his Zoysiagrass form. His 72 hole record at the testing, tree-lined, classical set-up at East Lake reads 1st (2017), 7th (2018), 2nd (2019), 1st (2020) and 3rd (2021). He has also finished 6th (2020) at TPC Southwind and 10th here at Narashino. He clearly likes the Zoysia! That’s a great segue into Xander’s Asian form. 3rd at the 2017 CIMB Classic in Malaysia, 3 trips to Shanghai, China have seen 1st (2018) and 2nd (2019) place finishes. In Japan itself his 3 visits as a professional have seen him finish 2nd at the Dunlop Phoenix, 10th here at the ZOZO and 1st at the Olympics. I’m certain that his target this week is to capture his long-awaited 5th PGA Tour victory here in what would be an emotional victory for the Schauffele family. RESULT: T28
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Yes the price will be a shock after he went off at anything up to 125/1 with firms offering extended each-way terms last week, but then again it’s Rickie Fowler. In for a penny, in for a pound for me this week on Fowler in a tournament which is far weaker than the CJ Cup.
Cut to the quick, Rickie was simply outstanding at the CJ Cup in Las Vegas. 2nd for Driving Accuracy (he was 5th for Driving Distance), 1st for Greens in Regulation, 1st for Total Driving, 1st for Accuracy, 1st for Ball Striking and 1st for All-Round at The Summit Club, safe to say Fowler was 1st for Strokes Gained Tee to Green on his way to 3rd place overall.
For the record that was his best finish on the PGA Tour since the 2019 Honda Classic – where he was T2. You’ll remember that one as Keith Mitchell won at 300/1 from Fowler and Brooks Koepka. The work with swing coach John Tillery, and the positive feedback he got from Butch Harmon the weekend of the Shriners Open when he missed the cut on the number, certainly showed last week as he contended throughout.
He’s never played in Japan, but his history of playing in Asia is excellent. 5th at the 2010 CIMB Asia Pacific Classic at The Mines, the year after he won his first ever professional title at the 2011 Korean Open played at Woo Jeong Hills, defeating Rory McIlroy into the bargain. Visits to China have also seen him finish 3rd (2014) and 6th (2016) at the WGC-HSBC Champions. So Rickie has enjoyed his forays to the Far East and is sure to be loved by the Japanese fans.
Whilst others in this field are potentially jaded after a long year, Rickie will be keen to build on the momentum he generated in Nevada, and the build-up to many of his top-level wins are interesting. Ball Striking numbers of 3rd, 4th, 12th and 11th have preceded 4 of his 7 PGA / European Tour victories and 4 of his 5 PGA Tour wins have come at 22/1 (2019 Phoenix Open), 16/1 (2017 Honda Classic), 40/1 (2015 Deutsche Bank) and 40/1 (2012 Wells Fargo Championship). He’s in the right ball park this week for an emotional victory. RESULT: T44
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K.H. Lee is worthy of investment this week in my opinion. 12th at the BMW Championship in the FedEx Cup Playoffs back in August, he’s kept the momentum going at the start of this new 2021/22 season with 14th at the Shriners Open and 25th last week at the CJ Cup. That good play translates to my 8 week Strokes Gained Tracker where he ranks 6th in this field for Off the Tee, 16th for Approach, 6th for Tee to Green and 9th for Strokes Gained Total.
2021 has undoubtedly been a breakthrough year for Kyoung-Hoon who came to our attention when he finished 2nd behind Brooks Koepka at the Phoenix Open in February. May then brought a breakthrough maiden PGA Tour victory at TPC Craig Ranch, where he beat Sam Burns and Daniel Berger fairly comfortably. That Texas course features Zoysiagrass fairways and Bentgrass greens. 6th at the 3M Open in July also came on a Bentgrass putting surface.
It’s also worth noting that K.H. is 30 years of age and before joining the PGA Tour as a rookie in season 2018/19, played extensively across Asia. A 2-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour (2012 and 2015), Lee’s experience of Japanese courses, conditions and their biggest tournaments is extensive. 2016 saw him finish 2nd at both the Japan Open and Bridgestone Open and he’s also performed well at the Dunlop Phoenix Open finishing 16th (2012) and 6th (2013) at Phoenix Country Club. That experience also includes the Korean Tour and winning his own national Open at Woo Jeong Hills in 2015 and 2016. RESULT: T18
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