The ZOZO Championship
It was a very similar week for us in Vegas to that, which we had at the Sanderson’s the week before in that we had a triple digit odds pick on the fringes of things heading in to Sunday, battling it out in a logjam for a place if not more.
Last week in Jackson, Troy Merritt agonisingly missed out for us with a bogey on the 72nd hole, while this week it was Joel Dahmen’s term to put us through the ringer down the stretch before in the end bagging a share of seventh place.
With Dahmen having been three shots shy of what transpired to be the winning total as he stood on the 14th tee it was very frustrating that two three putts on the next two holes stalled his run and in the end we were grateful for what we got.
As for the event itself it was another spectacular performance from the young Korean superstar Tom Kim who defended his title from last year to bag his third PGA Tour trophy.
Kim saw off perennial desert nearly man Adam Hadwin for a one shot win [who we were on here last year!] down the stretch after the Canadian found the water on the par five 16th.
So, we move on and it’s time for a trip to Japan for The Zozo Championship. The event is held at Accordia Golf Narashino CC in Chiba, which is about 25 miles from Tokyo.
The tournament, which was introduced to the calendar in 2019 is now a regular fixture on the schedule with a deal in place for it to take place until at least 2025.
In 2020 due to the covid 19 pandemic the event was moved for one year only to the US, more specifically Sherwood CC in California, however last year we returned to Japan for the second playing at the home venue.
The event is a limited field event with no cut. The field in principle is made up of the top 60 available players from the previous seasons Fedex Cup, the top seven players in the current Japan Golf Tour’s money list through the Bridgestone Open, the top three players finishing in the Bridgestone Open and eight sponsors exemptions.
There is no denying the field on display this week is a far stronger one than we have seen at any other Fall events to date, however beneath the ‘headline acts’ it still lacks some depth.
Home favourite Hideki Matsuyama is the star draw, however Hideki is not the favourite in the betting though, this honour goes to Xander Schauffele who is at single figure odds, with Collin Morikawa, Rickie Fowler, and Matsuyama all then available around the 14-16/1 mark.
The host course Accordia Golf Narashino CC a par 70 measuring just under 7041yds.
Importantly though unlike most par 70 courses the course includes five par 3’s and three par 5s in its setup instead of the customary two par 5s and four par 3s.
The course sits 26 miles east of Tokyo’s glistening downtown Ginza district, just over halfway to Narita International Airport.
There are two courses at Narashino CC, the King and the Queen course, and this weeks 18 holes will be made up of a composite of the two.
The course opened in 1965.
The greens are Bentgrass while the fairways feature Zoyzia grass, comparable to that seen at TPC Southwind and East Lake.
The most unique feature of the course is that as is the custom with many Japanese golf courses each hole has two greens. If a player finds the wrong green during tournament week, which isn’t in play on the hole, they will get a free drop under a ‘wrong green’ ruling to the nearest point of relief.
The track features narrowish, treelined fairways and smallish greens not too dissimilar visually to the sort of course you find in the Carolina’s, perhaps like Sedgefield or Quail Hollow [although not comparable in length to the latter], or even more so to Copperhead, home of the Valspar Championship over on the Tampa coast, which is often seen as more as a Carolina’s type course rather than a Florida one.
With the event having been played on US soil in 2020 we can dismiss that edition from our thinking meaning we have three outings in 2019, 2021 and last year at Narashino CC to focus on.
So then let’s have a look at the top ten finishers from those two years.
1, K Bradley, T2 R Fowler, A Putnam, 4 E Grillo, T5 V Hovland, S Theegala, H Buckley, 8 C Champ, T9 T Hoge, X Schauffele, M NeSmith.
1, H Matsuyama. T2 B Steele, C Tringale, T4, M Hughes, M Wallace, S Munoz, T7, K Bradley, L Griffin, T Kanaya, L List, T Fleetwood, B Grace, C Morikawa, S Ryder.
1 T Woods, 2 H Matsuyama, T3 S Im, R McIlroy, 5 G Woodland, T6 C Conners, B Horschel
T8 B An, C Howell III, T10, D Lee, R Palmer, X Schauffele
So, what can we glean from these leaderboards? Well with only three year’s worth of data the picture is still pretty sketchy in all honesty, particularly as we don’t have any full strokes gained data to go on. [Not that I can find anyway!].
What I would say though is looking at the type of player who is coming to the fore and with the likes of Bradley, Grillo, NeSmith and Buckley prominent last year and Steele and Tringale finishing top three the year before is that alongside the obvious big names rising to the top this seems to be very much a course suited to the most solid tee to green ball strikers on tour.
In addition one thing we can see though from the stats available is that in 2019 the key to Tiger’s win was a hot putter, he ranked first in old fashioned ‘putts per GIR’ and coupled this with a strong approach game, he was third in GIR. Basically he did everything great, something reflected in the fact that he was six shots clear of the third place finishers.
The second player home, that year, Matsuyama, ranked second for the week in putting, rubber stamping the hot putter angle, while he was sixth in GIR and Sungjae Im who tied for third with McIlroy was fourth in putting.
Moving on to 2021 and unfortunately there is no stats data available from that edition so we have little more to go on than we did after year one.
One angle that does interest me though is something that I initially speculated on in my preview in 2019 prior to the courses first outing and that is that the flyovers I had seen reminded me in some ways of a Copperhead type course in it being tree lined and quite tight in places. In addition of course we have the similarity between the two events of the five par three’s.
The reason this angle still interests me is if we look at the final top ten from 2019 noted above we had one former Copperhead Champion, Woodland, a player in Im who finished top five that year in the Valspar and a player in Conners who first hit our consciousness when he lead at the Copperhead through three rounds and had Tiger for company on Sunday.
Meanwhile if we look at the 2021 top ten here we’ll see that two players who featured prominently at the Copperhead course in 2021, Bradley and Tringale, finished high up the board here.
If we then look at 2022s top ten home we again see Bradley’s name in lights, Sahith Theegala finished fifth here having posted seventh at the Valspar earlier in the year while Matthew NeSmith who was third at the Valspar earlier in the year came home in ninth.
Furthermore if we scroll down the 2022 ZOZO leaderboard to 12th we will find Taylor Moore, this years Valspar champion.
Finally, one other thing we need to consider is the potential for rustiness from some players.
Last year Bradley triumphed here on the back of a fifth place at the Sanderson’s two weeks before, while runners up Fowler and Putnam had already made two and three starts respectively in the Fall with Fowler having a top ten and Putnam 12th in Vegas the week before, and many will arrive this week in Japan on the back of a similarly active Fall schedule.
Conversely of course some players, attracted by the guaranteed purse will arrive for their lone Fall start. Defending champion Bradley has not teed it up since the Tour Championship in August, while Matsuyama has not been seen on the course since withdrawing at the BMW Championship. Meanwhile the American Ryder Cup players, Fowler, Schauffele and Morikawa, aside from their disappointing week in Rome, have no appearances since the Tour Championship.
We look set this week for a dry week as a whole with temperatures starting out in the high 70s before dropping to the high 60s as the week progresses.
Saturday is the one day where we could seen some showers as things stand.
The wind could be an issue particularly on Friday as at the time of writing there is a potential for 30 mph gusts.
As I always say though…this could all change!
I have gone with four players this week as follows;
SAHITH THEEGALA – 20/1 – 2pts E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 19th
I will start things off this week by siding with Sahith Theegala.
Backing a player to win their second PGA Tour title in their next start after their first is of course a risky business however having put Theegala up for this last year as I thought he would take to the course I am loathed to abandon him here after he rewarded us with fifth place 12 months ago.
My logic for putting Sahith up for this event last year was that he had shown a liking for a classical tree lined test such as at the Travelers and at the Valspar where he had posted top ten finishes on his debut season, with the Copperhead, host of the Valspar an event, which seems to link particularly well here through the likes of Bradley who won here last year as well as Tringale, Woodland, Conners and NeSmith who have all performed strongly at both events.
In addition of course Theegala’s recent win at Silverado came on another classical tree lined layout.
With that win under his belt now there is a danger of course that the 25yr old takes his foot off the gas however he doesn’t strike me as that type of character and if anything I can see him pushing on again buoyed by the confidence that win will have given him.
What’s more a glance at Theegala’s social media over the past 24hrs shows us that he is out in Japan already acclimatizing himself and putting the work in on the course so he clearly fully focused on the week ahead.
Granted it is four weeks now since Sahith took down he trophy at the Fortinet so rustiness could be a risk, however the only difference in his preparation to last year for this event is that he missed the cut last year at the Sanderson’s so I don’t see too much difference. In addition let’s not forget there was a four week gap between his appearance at the BMW prior to his win at Silverado.
I’ll take the young Californian then to stay hot and show us the class act he is by backing up win number one with a second win this week.
CAMERON CHAMP – 55/1 – 1pt e/w 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 59th
Next up for me this week I am going to take my chances with Cameron Champ.
On the face of it you wouldn’t expect Narashino CC with its narrow tree lined fairways to be a layout big hitting Champ would thrive on, however based on last years eighth place finish here, which included a low round of 64 it is clearly one that fits his eye.
Following on from that top ten though the remainder of 2022 and the vast majority of 2023 has been bleak for Champ and as a result he finished the regular season at 147th in the Fedex standings, meaning with his exemption for his most recent win at the 3M Open in 2021 due to run out at the end of this year he is in danger of losing his card.
The good news for Cameron and his fans though is that over the past two weeks he appears to have found something in his game, first of all posting a ninth place finish at the Sanderson’s and then backing that up with an 18th place last week at the Shriners.
At the Shriners, Champ headed in to the weekend in pole position, however on Saturday the wheels came off his round early on as after a triple bogey seven on the third he found himself five over for the day through six holes. Fair play to Cameron though as he steadied the ship and while he still ended up posting a disappointing 74 he was under par the rest of the way. Furthermore he then bounced back with a 65 on Sunday.
With the Californian having talked in his interviews in Vegas about how he has been working on the mental side of the game, which he felt was weighing him down there are clearly positive signs then and what we do know about him is when everything clicks he more often than not rubber stamps that with a win.
To expand on that further Cameron’s last win in 2021 came in his immediate start after an out of the blue 11th at the John Deere, while his previous win at the Fortinet came after an eye catch seasons opener the previous week at the Sanderson Farms.
Furthermore with two of Champ’s three wins coming in the Fall this is clearly a time of year that he thrives.
Champ became a Father for the first time back in the summer and it may just be the contentment he is taking from that has helped him find some peace again on the golf course, and with him being very much a man to follow when he ‘gets hot’ I will happily take the recent hints and jump on board this week.
JOEL DAHMEN – 66/1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 7 - FINISHED 59th
Next up this week I will return to our nearly man from last week Joel Dahmen.
I sided with Joel last week in Las Vegas as in addition to his strong record in the desert he appeared to have turned a corner the previous week in Mississippi, and while he couldn’t quite finish the job off there was more than enough in his display to warrant going in with him again this week.
After starting slowly at the Shriners with a +1 round of 72 Joel produced rounds of 65 64 & 66, putting on a superb ball striking display. Joel ranked first off the tee for the week, third from tee to green, tenth in approach play, while ninth in Driving accuracy and fourth in old fashioned GIR.
Basically Joel had it on a string for the week and if it wasn’t for a very luke warm putter he would have had every chance of taking home the trophy.
On to this week then and as a shorter accurate hitter, Narashino CC is clearly a track that fits Dahmen’s skill sets and he backed this thought up with a solid 16th place finish here last year.
2023 has been a tough year for Dahmen as a whole with his regular end of season ranking of 84th owing an awful lot to some strong play in the Fall events last year. Two events in to the Fall series though he has improved that position to 76th and if he can produce a big finish to the year he would have a good chance of making the ‘next ten’ from 50-60 in the final Fedex rankings, which would then see him qualify for the first two designated events next year.
The omens are good for Joel on this front as he notched three top tens in the Fall events in a row last year and he appears to be building up similar momentum this year.
Finally with Dahmen’s lone PGA Tour title coming in the Corales Puntacana event two years ago we know he is comfortable in blustery conditions so if the wind does pick up at times this week as forecast, he his more than equipped to cope.
I’ll stick with Dahmen this week then to build on last weeks showing in Vegas and make a bold effort at his second PGA Tour title here.
RYO HISATSUNE – 100/1 – 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 6 - FINISHED T6th
While Japanese eyes will inevitably be focused on Hideki Matsuyama this week the home grown player who by far appeals to me the most at the odds is Ryo Hisatsune.
Hisatsune turned professional in 2020 and after winning three times on the Japan Challenge Tour he earned status for the DP World Tour at the end of 2022 via Q School.
Since then the 21yr old has been a revelation posting five top tens across the season including two top three finishes before landing his maiden DP World Tour Title at the Le Golf National in his most recent start three weeks ago.
In that victory Ryo showed us that he is more than comfortable on a track that requires strong tee to green play and this is something that is backed up with his season long stats on the DP World Tour of ninth in Driving Accuracy and 15th in good old fashioned GIR.
On that basis then aside from his obvious comfort levels playing at home you would expect Ryo to have all the skill sets required to handle the narrow tree lined fairways of this layout.
Furthermore on this front we don’t need to speculate too much as Hisatsune finished 12th here last year, a result, which could have been much better but for a subdued closing 70.
Returning here 12 months later then as a far more accomplished player and of course as a DP World Tour winner, I expect a bold showing from Ryo this week and he looks great each way value to me at the odds.