ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP: The PGA Tour skips from Vegas to the Far East this week, where Japan’s Narashino Country Club will play host to the ZOZO Championship, a tournament that is co-sanctioned by the Japan Tour but carries with it all the privileges, points, and exemptions of a regular PGA Tour event, plus a whopping $9.95 million purse. When there’s that sort of money on the line the players are sure to follow, and the field this week is incredibly strong when you consider that many of the players had to endure a 13-hour plane flight immediately following 72 holes of golf in the Nevada sun.
That being said, only 60 of the 78 players teeing it up this week are PGA Tour regulars, with the rest of the field being comprised of Japan Tour stars and amateurs. There are some top-line names, however, like Xander Schauffele, who heads BETDAQ’s Win Market at 9.2, Collin Morikawa, who sits right behind him at 9.4, and others like Hideki Matsuyama (13.0), Joaquin Niemann (24.0), and Tommy Fleeetwood (30.0).
While tournament organizers have to be pleased with the turnout, they’d be hard pressed to top what happened the last time this event was held at Narashino, in 2019, when some guy named Tiger walked off with his 82nd career PGA Tour victory. Woods was majestic that week, pulling off some fantastic iron shots and turning back the clock on the greens to finish at 19-under, three shots clear of the field.
Due to the pandemic this tournament was moved to California last year, and only 25 players teeing it up this week were present for Tiger’s victory in 2019, so Narashino CC will be a new experience for much of the field. It’s a fairly straightforward layout; a 7,040-yard par-70 that seems very similar to the parkland courses the dot the midwestern United States. It features tree-lined fairways, lush rough, and undulating bentgrass greens that should be much firmer this year than they were in 2019, when torrential rains nearly forced the cancellation of the tournament. One would think that drier weather would make the scoring a bit more difficult, but most 7,000-yard courses that aren’t particularly severe off the tee seem to get torn to pieces these days, so a birdie-fest feels more likely than a bloodbath. With that in mind, here are three names that I think may be worth a look this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jhonnatan Vegas (30.0)- The man known as Johnny Vegas has been on a tear lately, finishing 16th or better in 7 of his past 11 starts, including a pair of runner-ups. As usual, it’s been the ball-striking that has carried him– he was 6th on Tour last season in strokes gained off the tee and 31st in strokes gained tee-to-green, and he resumed his strong play last week in his first start of the new season, finishing 14th at the CJ Cup after breaking 70 in all four rounds. Like most of the field, he’s never seen Narashino CC in competition, but it closely resembles a Midwestern parkland-style course and Vegas has had plenty of success on those, finishing runner-up in the 3M Open five starts ago and logging a T11 in the John Deere Classic the week prior. Given his current form and price, Vegas might be the best bet on the board this week.
Emiliano Grillo (44.0)- Shorter courses that put a premium on iron play are always a good fit for Grillo, who once again ranked in the top-15 on Tour in strokes gained on approach last season. Narashino is just such a course, and unlike most of the field Grillo participated two years ago so he should have a good feel for the place. He didn’t putt well enough to contend in 2019 but he played solid golf, shooting par or better in all four rounds and finishing 30th, so he should have some confidence and a battle-tested plan of attack. He’s in good form this time around after a T18 at last week’s CJ Cup, where he posted a blistering 61 in the final round. All things considered, Grillo feels like a good value here at better than 40/1.
Matthew NeSmith (84.0)- After finishing last season with three consecutive missed cuts NeSmith took some time off to work on his swing and the results have been noticeable, as he’s been a totally different player in this new season, making 2 of 3 cuts and finishing T14 in his last start, the Shriners, where he posted 15-under and broke 70 in all four rounds. A terrific iron player who ranked 11th on Tour last season in strokes gained on approach, NeSmith should find the small targets at Narashino to his liking, and if he putts like he did in Vegas two weeks ago he may find himself in contention for his first PGA Tour victory. A tournament like this– limited field, with some of the top guys absent– is a great opportunity for a young player like NeSmith to make a name for himself. He’s a bit of a longshot, for sure, but I believe he’s worth a bet at a price like 84.0.