ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP: The PGA Tour makes its first-ever stop in Japan this week for the ZOZO Championship, and as you would expect for such a landmark occasion with such deep-pocketed sponsors, some of golf’s brightest stars have showed up to the party, including Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Japanese hero Hideki Matsuyama, and even Tiger Woods, who will be teeing it up for the first time since his knee surgery in August.
Well, technically, that’s not correct: Woods, Day, Matsuyama, and McIlroy competed on Monday in the Challenge Japan Skins, a made-for-TV skins game which was won by Day. That event was held on the same course that the players will be playing this week– Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club, a 7,041-yard par-70 that is sure to be torn to pieces over the next four days. I say that based on the little bit of the Skins Challenge that I caught on the Golf Channel late Sunday night before passing out– the place seemed in perfect condition, it’s obviously short, and though there were trees in spots and a lot of talk about it being narrow, the rough didn’t seem particularly daunting. All of that adds up to low scoring, and with no cut to worry about this week, the 78-man field will have no excuse not to be aggressive.
The field breakdown is a bit unusual in that it features the top-60 from last year’s FedEx Cup standings, 10 players from the Japan Golf Tour, and 8 sponsor’s exemptions, a few of which went to relative unknowns. That means it’s a true “haves and have-nots” type of situation– I read somewhere this week that is was a field consisting of “who’s who and who’s him”, and I think that’s a pretty accurate description.
Justin Thomas (7.4) heads BETDAQ’s Win Market after blitzing Nine Bridges last week to win the CJ Cup, and the limited field makes those short odds a bit more palatable. You would think that Matsuyama (19.0) would be well-positioned to contend, considering he finished third last week and will have the galleries squarely behind him, but he netted just a single skin on Monday, the fewest in the foursome by far, so it remains to be seen whether Accordia Golf Narashino is a good fit for him. I think I’ll look elsewhere this week, while retaining some Japanese flavor:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Gary Woodland (23.0)- Woodland experienced a bit of a letdown after his U.S. Open triumph in June, coasting for a few events before finishing the season with a respectable T15 at the Tour Championship. But if last week is any indication, he’s back in top form, as he tied for third in the CJ Cup after closing with 65-66, the best weekend score of anyone in the field. Woodland, of course, is known as one of the longest guys in the world off the tee, and though Accordia Golf Narashimo is somewhat short and many have speculated that players might be laying up off most tees this week, the lack of penalizing rough leaves open another possibility– that the longest guys will simply disregard the rough and overpower the course. The fairways seemed awfully soft in the skins game the other night, which will help in that regard. With a limited field, a short, soft course, and the confidence that comes with his top-3 finish last week, Woodland is a blue-chip option this week and a good value at better than 20/1.
Joaquin Niemann (60.0)- Considering that no one in the field has ever seen this course in competition, there’s more guesswork than usual this week, but one theme you’ve heard talked about a lot over the last couple of days, and on the broadcast of Monday’s skins game, is that Accordia Golf Narashimo is a “ball striker’s layout”. It’s tree-lined, it’s relatively tight, and some of the green complexes are severe, requiring precision approach shots. Well, if great ball-striking is what’s required, then this could be Joaquin Niemann’s type of week, as the young Chilean has been absolutely striping it over the past few months. His putting held him back for much of the ’18-’19 season, but he hits the ball so well that he was still competitive, finishing 31st or better in 11 of his final 12 starts. He started to roll it better in August, and when it finally came together last month, the results spoke for themselves: a victory at the Greenbrier in the first event of the wraparound season. He showed last week that he’s still in excellent form, shooting 11-under to finish T12 at the CJ Cup, so I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be backed enthusiastically this week at a price like 60.0.
Shugo Imahira (94.0)- There could be a logical case made that some of the Japanese players are undervalued in the Western betting markets this week, and if you want to take a chance on one of the natives, you may want to give Imahira a look. He’s the best player on the Japan Golf Tour, topping their Order of Merit in 2018, and he’s only two weeks removed from winning the Bridgestone Open, which is generally considered the most prominent event on that tour. It was Imahira’s sixth top-10 finish in his past seven starts, and it moved him up to 52nd the the Official World Golf Rankings. He has considerable worldwide experience, too, competing in all four majors in 2019 and three other PGA Tour events, with his best finish a tie for 27th in July’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. So he won’t be intimidated by the magnitude of the event this week, and though I’m unsure about how much experience he has at Accordia Golf Narashimo, he certainly has more experience playing–and winning– in Japan than most. Given his current form, he sure seems like an attractive option at nearly 100/1.