THE CJ CUP: The PGA Tour begins an international journey this week that will include stops in China, Japan, and Mexico over the next month, but first it’s a return to South Korea’s Jeju Island, where The Club at Nine Bridges will play host to the CJ Cup for the third consecutive year.
This event is somewhat unique in that it features a limited 78-man field and no cut, and is played at unusual hours for a Tour event– Korean Standard Time (GMT+9). Those factors combined with the almost plastic-looking perfection of Nine Bridges make for a somewhat surreal TV viewing experience– like one of those Asian Tour events that you’d wake up to on the couch at 3am when the Golf Channel used to show them, only this time it’s with the best players in the world. I mean, look at the field this week– Koepka, Thomas, Fleetwood, Matsuyama, Spieth, Day… I’m not sure what this tournament does in terms of appearance fees, but I reckon there’s some reason why so many big names have gathered on the far side of the world in the middle of October.
The course is a par 72 that’s not particularly long, measuring 7,241 yards, but it’s bomber-friendly because the longer guys can take bunkers and other trouble out of play on several holes (don’t take my word for it– this is precisely what defending champion Koepka said about the course last year). Given that Koepka and Justin Thomas have been the two winners at Nine Bridges, and fellow bomber Gary Woodland was runner-up last year, I think we can safely say that length off the tee will be a tremendous advantage this week. The wind could also be a major factor, as much of the course is exposed and a few holes can get extremely tricky in the wind. In 2017, when it blew for the better part of three days, the winning score was 9-under par. Last year, in more benign conditions, it was 21-under.
Hopefully this week’s changes in geography, field size, and field quality won’t disrupt our momentum, as we’ve now landed two winners over the past month after Lanto Griffin, tipped at 44.0, got the job done in Houston last week. No reason to slow down now, right? Here’s what I’ve got:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Marc Leishman (32.0)- Leishman put together a great stretch of golf over the summer, logging five top-25 finishes– including a pair of top-5s– in his final eight starts of the season. He picked up right where he left off at the Safeway Open three weeks ago, closing with rounds of 67-65 to finish 3rd. Now he heads to a place that isn’t quite as unfamiliar to him as it is to some in the field– prior to making it on the PGA Tour, Leishman played some golf on the Korean Tour, so he’s very familiar with the style of golf in the region, and he’s played extremely well in this event over the past two years, losing in a playoff to Justin Thomas in 2017 and then finishing T18 last year, when he battled back from an opening-round 75. So there are very few players in this field who will be able to match Leishman’s level of comfort at Nine Bridges, and given his current form he should absolutely be considered one of the favorites this week. I’m all over him at better than 30/1.
Tyrrell Hatton (56.0)- Weeks like this, when a lot of guys have only been playing sporadically and much of the field will be seeing a course for the first time, can be tricky to predict, for obvious reasons. But if we stick to the formula of “world class player/good current form/good course history” we can’t stray too far off the path, and Hatton is perhaps the only player in his price range who ticks all three of those boxes. He’s certainly proven that he can succeed all over the world, his game seems to be in good shape right now after a T18 at the Italian Open last week, which was preceded by a T15 at the Dunhill, and he played well in this tournament last year, finishing 14th after closing with 68-66. Travel and the accompanying jet lag could be somewhat of an issue– Hatton was playing in Italy last week while many players were resting and preparing– but at a price like 56.0, you’re not going to do much better. Hatton might be the best value on the board this week.
Ryan Palmer (112.0)- Palmer has always done most of his best work in and around his home state of Texas, and he’ll obviously be stepping well outside of that particular comfort zone this week. But given the way he played in this tournament last year, when he tied for third after firing a course-record 62 on Sunday, he may begin to feel right at home on lovely Jeju Island. Nine Bridges is his kind of course in that it caters to a right-to-left shot, which has always been Palmer’s bread and butter, and also favors the longer players. Palmer is one of those guys who hits it further than you realize– he ranked 6th in the field in driving distance at the Shriners Hospitals Open two weeks ago, averaging 326.1 yards per drive. He finished 37th at the Shriners, continuing a stretch of play that has been good, but not great– seven made cuts and a pair of top-10s in his last eight starts. But Palmer has always been the type who can get hot and go crazy, as evidenced by his Sunday rampage in this event last year, and he’s also been a player who makes most of his money on a small handful of courses. Nine Bridges looks like it might be his kind of place, making him an interesting longshot play at a price like 112.0.