The PGA Tour’s Asian swing sees a new edition with the inaugural Zozo Championship making up the second of three legs. The event in Japan replaces the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. Justin Thomas won the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in South Korea for the second time in three years and goes off as the 7/1 favorite here. He is followed by Rory McIlroy at 8/1. Native son Hideki Matsuyama, off a T3 last week, slots in at 16/1 and precedes Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele, both at 20/1. Fifteen of the top 30 OWGR players are here, and this field is stacked. Others in the field include Tiger Woods, Tony Finau, Paul Casey, Adam Scott, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Reed, Gary Woodland, Shane Lowry, Kevin Na, Louis Oosthuizen, Marc Leishman, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Jason Day, Kevin Kisner, Chez Reavie, Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Billy Horschel, Rafa Cabrera Bello and Ian Poulter.
The Zozo Championship is the first event sanctioned by the PGA Tour in Japan. Like the CJ Cuup, this is another short-field 78-player, no-cut event. It features the top 60 available PGA Tour players from last season’s FedEx Cup standings, the top seven players in the current Japan Golf Tour money list, the top three players in the recent Bridgestone Open and eight sponsor exemptions. Similar to last week in South Korea, the tournament purse is $9.75 million, with the winner getting $1.75 million.
The Narashino Country Club hosted the Japan Skins on Sunday night into Monday morning. Day defeated McIlroy, Woods and Matsuyama. Set about an hour east of Tokyo, Narashino is in Chiba. The club has three 18-hole layouts — the King, Kuko and
Queen courses. The Zozo Championship will play a composite layout on what is a typical Japanese course. Parkland in nature, the course is tree-lined, featuring plenty of doglegs and small greens. A short par-70 at 7,041 yards, the course is set up as a 34 front nine/36 back nine. The composite course is composed of 5 par-3s, 10 par-4s and 3 par-5s. The par-4s consist of five holes at sub-425 yards that can provide excellent birdie opportunities. The other five are on the longer side at 505 yards (4th), 486 yards (9th), 486 yards (11th), 490 yards (12th) and 491 yards (17th). In an interesting wrinkle, most Japanese courses, including here at Narashino, feature twin greens. If approach shots land on the unused greens, golfers will get a free drop at the nearest point of relief. Important stats to examine here look to be SG: Off The Tee, Greens In Regulation and Scrambling.
Hideki Matsuyama 18/1
Pressure likely will be great on the Japanese star to win the first PGA-sanctioned event in his home country, but he’s in solid form with a T3 last week in South Korea.
Tony Finau 30/1
Five top-10s in his last eight starts dating to the British Open at Royal Portrush.
Gary Woodland 30/1
The reigning U.S. Open champion has taken a liking to Asia in recent years. He’s had three top-5s at the former CIMB Classic in Malaysia plus a second and a third the last two years in South Korea. Back in 2011, he also won the World Cup of Golf in China, teaming with Matt Kuchar.
Byeong Hun An 40/1
He finished sixth last week in South Korea and ranked fourth in putting average. He likes these tree-lined layouts.
Corey Conners 80/1
The Canadian ranks No. 1 on the PGA Tour in SG: Off The Tee and finished a respectable 12th last week in South Korea.
Jason Kokrak 80/1
Kokrak currently ranks No. 1 on the PGA Tour in Scrambling, which could very much come into play with the twin greens on this course.
With many top players competing in Japan or taking a week off before the WGC–HSBC Champions event in China, the Portugal Masters has a bit of a weak field. Matt Wallace heads the betting at 10/1, followed by Martin Kaymer at 18/1. Lucas Bjerregaard, the 2017 champion; Eddie Pepperell, who finished second and third the last two years here; and Tom Lewis, a two-time champion in 2011 and 2018, all slot in at 20/1. This is also the final regular-season event of the European Tour before the Race to Dubai events begin two weeks from now in Turkey. So the Portugal Masters is almost the European Tour’s version of the Wyndham Championship the week before the FedEx Cup.
The Portugal Masters began in 2007 and has always been staged at the Arnold Palmer-designed Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course in Vilamoura. The tournament boasts winners including former British Open champions Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington.
The Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course was designed by Arnold Palmer in 2004 and hosted the WGC World Cup in 2005 before becoming the permanent host for the Portugal Masters. It is a typically easy Palmer design that has been extended a bit to a 7,191-yard, par-71 layout. The track is pretty flat, is exposed to water on seven holes and has a number of strategically placed fairway bunkers. Some new trees have been added to prevent the bombers from having so much of an advantage, and the Bermuda rough has been grown to provide more penalty to errant tee shots. Englishman Oliver Fisher set the course record last year with a 59, which was the first official round below 60 in the history of the European Tour. Even with the attempt to toughen the course, expect lots of birdies this week. The last seven winners were ranked in the top seven that week in Putting Average.
Recent history/winners 2018: Tom Lewis (-22/262) 50/1
2017: Lucas Bjerregaard (-20/264) 66/1
2016: Padraig Harrington (-23/261) 100/1
2015: Andy Sullivan (-23/261) 50/1
2014: Alexander Levy (-18/124) 70/1*
2013: David Lynn (-18/266) 80/1
2012: Shane Lowry (-14/270) 66/1
2011: Tom Lewis (-21/267) 100/1
2010: Richard Green (-18/270) 50/1
*Weather-shortened to 36 holes
Adri Arnaus 25/1
He has four top-6 finishes in his last 10 events, including two runners-up at the Andalucia Masters and Czech Masters. The European Tour rookie also finished fourth last season at the Open de Portugal on the Challenge Tour.
Sam Horsfield 30/1
Englishmen have won six of the 12 Portugal Masters, and Horsfield at least fills that bill. He has made nine straight cuts and has had four top-15s in that stretch. Horsfield also ranked second last week in Putting Average at the Open de France.
Chris Paisley 30/1
Another Englishman who finished T8 last week in France. Paisley finished T12 here in 2017 and T6 in 2016, so he likes the course.
Callum Shinkwin 50/1
The Englishman has two top-10s in his last three starts. He’s a bomber who should like this track.
Jeff Winther 60/1
The Norwegian finished fourth a few weeks back at the Open de Espana. He ranks fifth in SG: Putting ( 0.87 per round), and hot putters tend to win here.
Min Woo Lee 80/1
The younger brother of LPGA Tour pro Minjee Lee leads the European Tour in Driving Distance (320.9 yards) and ranks sixth in SG: Off The Tee ( 0.76). He is also very solid with the flat stick as he ranks 19th in Putts Per GIR (1.75).