CJ CUP: After a week in Japan the PGA Tour returns stateside for the CJ Cup, an event that was held in South Korea prior to the pandemic and then Las Vegas the last two years but has now found a home in the golfing mecca of Hilton Head, South Carolina. This tournament is an invitational that features only the top 60 from last year’s FedEx Cup standings as well as a handful of the top players from Asia– 78 players total– and this is without a doubt the strongest field we’ve seen since the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
The course is one that’s fast making a name for itself amongst golf aficionados– Congaree Golf Club opened in 2017 to much fanfare and was named Golf Digest’s best new private course in 2018, and it made its debut on the world stage when it hosted last year’s Palmetto Championship, an event created as a stand-in for the cancelled Canadian Open and held the week before the U.S. Open. The Tom Fazio-designed Congaree was modeled after the courses of Australia’s Melbourne Sandbelt, with wide, firm fairways lined with large bunkers and waste areas. It tips out at a staggering 7,700 yards, though last year the Tour was creative with tee placements and the course played a bit shorter, and I would expect the same approach this time around (South Carolina native Kevin Kisner famously remarked last year that the tees would have to be moved up “just to get all the players around”).
Congaree was soft and receptive last June but is apparently firm and fast right now, which should make things interesting around the greens, as large slopes and severe run-offs are one of the course’s trademark features. Kisner called it a “thinking man’s course” due to the challenging green complexes and the necessity of putting the ball in certain places to attack certain pins, and the current firm conditions should only accentuate that aspect. The winning score of last year’s Palmetto Championship was 11-under, so the course clearly has some teeth, and the conditions and setup promise to make things even more challenging this time around. It should be an interesting week.
The field is stacked and BETDAQ’s Win Market has the look of a major or a WGC event, with Rory McIlroy (8.4), Jon Rahm (10.0), and Scottie Scheffler (14.0) heading things up. It’s tough to swerve too far from the top-of-market options in a situation like this– difficult course, no cut, elite field, etc.– but this is a tremendous opportunity for some of the lesser-known guys, and for players who have stayed sharp instead of taking an offseason break. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Justin Thomas (18.0)- This will be the first time we’ve seen Thomas in action since the Presidents Cup, and it’s his first stroke-play start since his 5th-place finish at the Tour Championship. That said, we’ve seen him produce tremendous Fall/Winter results before, so perhaps the weekly competitive grind is less important to his performance than it is for some guys. His game seems like a perfect fit for Congaree, with its length and emphasis on controlling the golf ball (remember- Thomas ranked 3rd on Tour last year in strokes gained tee-to-green. He is in total control out there) and firm, fast Bermuda greens. This just feels like one of those Thomas weeks, and the price isn’t short enough to scare me off.
Tyrrell Hatton (49.0)- While some players have taken some time off these past few weeks and may have accumulated some competitive rust, Hatton has been quite busy, playing four events in four different countries over the past month. He’s been sharp, too, recording back-to-back top-10s in the Italian Open and the Dunhill Links before flying to Japan last week, where he slowed down a bit and finished middle of the pack. But now he returns to a course that he knows and apparently likes– Hatton is one of the few in the field this week who teed it up in last year’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree, and he nearly won, finishing just a shot behind champion Garrick Higgo. The unique terrain and links-style green complexes apparently suited the Englishman’s eye, and now he gets another shot at it, only with more money and prestige on the line. He’s been playing quite nicely, as mentioned, and if he’s not too jet-lagged after his trip around the world he should be a real threat this week, making him a nice value at nearly 50/1.
Christiaan Bezuidenhout (102.0)- Bezuidenhout is one of those guys who can get it up-and-down out of a trash can– he currently ranks 2nd on Tour in strokes gained around the green and was 6th in strokes gained putting last season– and that sort of creativity and short game brilliance should serve him well at Congaree, especially if the course is as firm and fast as practice round reports would have you believe. He’s been active this fall and has been playing some solid golf, finishing T20 at the Shriners two weeks ago after shooting 68 or better in all four rounds and then sneaking into the top-30 last week at the ZOZO, where he really could’ve made some noise had it not been for a second-round 73. Some have said that Congaree shares some similarities to the golf in Bezuidenhout’s homeland of South Africa, and of course it was another South African, Garrick Higgo, who triumphed here last year. A win this week would be a big step forward in Bezuidenhout’s career, no doubt, but he’s certainly capable, and I believe his chances are much better than his price would indicate.