After Tom Kim successfully defended the Shriners Children’s Open to win his third PGA Tour title in a little over twelve months, getting his rewards for a stellar run of form, the tour heads to East Asia for the fifth staging of the ZOZO Championship. Which takes place in Japan at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club.
The ZOZO Championship debuted in 2019 and became the first PGA Tour-sanctioned event to be staged in Japan. It is a 78-man no-cut event that also welcomes some of the very best players from the JGTO (Japan Golf Tour).
Tiger Woods was the first ever champion of the event, in a dream scenario for both event organisers and fans alike as he beat Japanese superstar, Hideki Matsuyama into 2nd; Rory McIlroy in 3rd part of a memorable and star-studded debut for the tournament.
The covid pandemic saw the event staged in the US at Sherwood Country Club in California in 2020, at which Patrick Cantlay was the victor, seeing off the major winning runner-up duo of Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm by a shot.
The ZOZO Championship returned to Japan in 2021 and to the delight of the home fans, Hideki – who won the Masters earlier that year to become Japan’s first male major champion – trounced the field by five strokes to claim the title.
Keegan Bradley won a much tighter affair last year, with a one-stroke success over Rickie Fowler and Andrew Putnam. He returns to defend this year; making his first start since the Tour Championship at the end of August.
Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club opened in 1965 and was designed by Shinya Fujita. The championship layout is a composite course comprising holes from both the King and Queen courses at the venue.
The par 70 parkland course will again play to a yardage of 7079 yards; possessing ten par 4s (363-505 yards), five par 3s (141-205 yards) and three par 5s (562-608 yards).
On paper, the length of the course is short but that is somewhat deceiving. The five par 3s are short as a collective, with just the 205-yard 5th hole above 200 yards and the other four at 183 or lower. However, there is a series of lengthy par 4s (five above 480 yards), with the 505-yard 4th the longest on the course. The par 5s have some bite to them too; the 14th hole – which comes in at 608 yards – is no gimme and showcases one of the narrowest fairways on the course.
Narrow fairways are a prominent feature of Narashino Country Club, ranking as the ninth-toughest to find on the PGA Tour over the last four years. Many dogleg and they are densely tree-lined, with overhanging trees requiring a certain level of strategy off-the-tee. However, rough isn’t overly penal, water is only present on a handful of holes and there is just a smattering of fairway bunkers.
There is much more sand around the greens, with most well bunkered; some of which are relatively deep. As with many old courses in Japan, each hole has two sets of greens for different periods of the year and it will be the bentgrass greens – which are typically receptive at this time of year and on the smaller side of average in size – in use this week; the par 3 5th is the only hole on which both greens will be used.
This is a solid and fair test of golf, with a good mixture of scoring opportunities and tougher scoring holes. Winning scores average -16.3 over the three renewals at Narashino and it’s a place where you really need to hit the ball well.
Sand Save %
Par 4 Scoring
There is no strokes-gained data collated for the ZOZO Championship, which makes our job a touch trickier this week. However, just one look at the three leaderboards when the event has been staged at Narashino paint a pretty clear picture of the main necessity for contending here: quality ball-striking.
Last year’s winner, Keegan Bradley is a player who excels with his long game and ranked 3rd for greens-in-regulation when winning; Emiliano Grillo in 4th very much fits the same bill and was 2nd for GIR in 2022.
Elite tee-to-green player, Hideki Matsuyama hit more greens than anyone when winning in 2021. Brendan Steele in 2nd is all about the ball-striking and ranked 7th for GIR there and Cameron Tringale, also a runner-up, ranked 2nd.
It’s hard to glean too much from a leaderboard that included Tiger Woods, Hideki Matsuyama and Rory McIlroy among the top 3 in 2019 but in behind them we have the likes of Corey Conners and Gary Woodland; both players at their best with the long game.
These greens are relatively easy to find due to the receptiveness of them but there are potentially some strong winds on the way this week, which could make finding them more challenging. With the volume and difficulty of the bunkering around the course, I also want to have strong bunker players on side.
Additionally, the par 4s look particularly important here, with each winner ranking 4th or better in par 4 scoring when they won.
Correlating Events (Course)
Charles Schwab Challenge (Colonial Country Club)
As a heavily tree-lined course, with narrow, doglegging fairways and bentgrass greens, Colonial Country Club is my favourite comp course this week. It ranks especially close to Narashino CC in driving accuracy and scrambling percentages.
Notable correlating form:
Andrew Putnam: ZOZO Championship (2nd) / Charles Schwab Challenge (3rd)
Rickie Fowler: ZOZO Championship (2nd) / Charles Schwab Challenge (5th, 6th)
Emiliano Grillo: ZOZO Championship (4th) / Charles Schwab Challenge (1st, 3rd, 8th)
Valspar Championship (Innisbrook Resort – Copperhead Course)
The Copperhead Course is a strategic course, with tight tree-lined fairways, many of which dogleg and has similar tee-to-green averages as here in Japan.
Notable correlating form:
Keegan Bradley: ZOZO Championship (1st) / Valspar Championship (2nd)
Sungjae Im: ZOZO Championship (3rd) / Valspar Championship (4th)
Cameron Tringale: ZOZO Championship (2nd) / Valspar Championship (3rd, 3rd)
Sahith Theegala: ZOZO Championship (5th) / Valspar Championship (7th)
Gary Woodland: ZOZO Championship (5th) / Valspar Championship (1st)
Matt Wallace: ZOZO Championship (4th) / Valspar Championship (7th)
Matt NeSmith: ZOZO Championship (9th) / Valspar Championship (3rd)
Genesis Invitational (Riviera Country Club)
Riviera Country Club ticks many of the same boxes as above, as a tree-lined course, with narrow fairways and plenty of doglegs. Averages in driving accuracy and scrambling compare closely to this week’s challenge.
Notable correlating form:
Keegan Bradley: ZOZO Championship (1st) / Genesis Invitational (2nd, 4th)
Hideki Matsuyama: ZOZO Championship (1st, 2nd) / Genesis Invitational (4th, 5th)
Sahith Theegala: ZOZO Championship (5th) / Genesis Invitational (6th)
Cameron Tringale: ZOZO Championship (2nd) / Genesis Invitational (8th)
Travelers Championship (TPC River Highlands)
TPC River Highlands ranks closely to this week’s course in GIR, scrambling and putting percentages. With many doglegging holes and bentgrass greens, it’s no surprise to see some strong pieces of correlating form across the two courses.
Notable correlating form:
Keegan Bradley: ZOZO Championship (1st) / Travelers Championship (1st, 2nd)
Brendan Steele: ZOZO Championship (2nd) / Travelers Championship (5th, 6th)
Mackenzie Hughes: ZOZO Championship (4th) / Travelers Championship (3rd)
Sahith Theegala: ZOZO Championship (5th) / Travelers Championship (2nd)
Sony Open (Waialae Country Club)
I’m going to sign off with the Sony Open in Hawaii. Waialae Country Club is a short, loosely tree-lined course that offers up a more generous ball-striking test, though did throw up more eye-catching form-ties than any other course.
Notable correlating form:
Hideki Matsuyama: ZOZO Championship (1st, 2nd) / Sony Open (1st)
Andrew Putnam: ZOZO Championship (2nd) / Sony Open (2nd, 4th)
Brendan Steele: ZOZO Championship (2nd) / Sony Open (2nd, 4th)
Hayden Buckley: ZOZO Championship (5th) / Sony Open (2nd)
Corey Conners: ZOZO Championship (6th) / Sony Open (3rd)
Gary Woodland: ZOZO Championship (5th) / Sony Open (3rd, 6th, 7th)
Conditions are forecast to be warm and dry before the start of the event and over the opening two rounds. Though temperatures cool over the weekend and there is the chance of rain on Saturday.
Wind could also be a factor, particularly over the first two rounds, with gusts of over 40mph predicted on Friday.
World #6, Xander Schauffele is the highest ranked player in this week’s field at the ZOZO Championship and is followed by #16 and defending champion, Keegan Bradley. They make up a group of fifteen from inside the world’s top 50, including 2021 winner and home favourite, Hideki Matsuyama.
There is a strong group of players from the JGTO in attendance, including Keita Nakajima, Takumi Kanaya and Taiga Semikawa; all of whom ranked 1st in the World Amateur Golf Rankings before turning professional in recent years. Ryo Hisatsune is another big talent and comes into this after winning his first title on the DP World Tour in the Open de France two starts ago.
Min Woo Lee makes his debut after a wire-to-wire win on the Asian Tour in Macau last week; the European trio of Nicolai Hojgaard, Vincent Norrman and Thomas Detry also make their first appearances.
Xander Schauffele is the 7/1 favourite, followed by Collin Morikawa at 12/1 and Hideki Matsuyama at 14s. The first two haven’t played a stroke play event since the Tour Championship at the end of August, whilst third-favourite, Matsuyama has been absent since withdrawing from the BMW Championship in the same month.
Meanwhile, at a similar price to Matsuyama, Sungjae Im has been plenty busy of late and looks the standout player from the top of the betting this week.
4 pts Sungjae Im Win Only – 14/1
Sungjae Im had one of the most important results in his career a few weeks ago, when the Korean team took the gold medal in the team competition at the Asian Games in China, thus meaning Sungjae avoids mandatory military service in his homeland.
He played a huge part in helping the team achieve this success, finishing a close 2nd in the individual competition and earned himself a silver medal; then following that with a 2nd-place finish in the Genesis Championship back home in Korea last week.
This was a continuation of the form he’d been showing on the PGA Tour over the final weeks of the regular season, as he finished 6th in the St Jude Championship and 7th in the BMW Championship in the opening two events of the FedExCup Play Offs.
Throughout his recent form, Im has showcased his fantastic all-round ability, possessing a game that displays little in the way of weaknesses. He’s a strong ball-striker, particularly excelling with the driver, ranking 23rd on tour this season and is one of the best out of the bunkers, ranking 4th in sand saves; a ranking of 27th in par 4 scoring is a further positive in his statistical profile for the challenge that awaits in Japan.
He finished 3rd here on debut in 2019 and returned last year to finish a solid 29th. A 4th in the Valspar and top 10 in the Charles Schwab Challenge emphasise his ability in this kind of test and with the positivity no doubt flowing after recent developments, Sungjae looks well placed to gain a first PGA Tour win in two years this week.
1.25 pts Adam Svensson each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 40/1
Adam Svensson disappointed in the final round of the Shriners for us last week, finishing 18th after entering the final round just two off the lead. However, his game once again looked good and with some nice pieces of correlating form, I’m expecting him to improve on his 59th here on debut last year.
His 18th-place finish last week was the Canadian’s fifth top 25 in his last seven starts and his third straight top 20; a 7th in the Wyndham Championship rates as his best effort during this period.
The ball-striking has looked good throughout this run of form and shone again last week, as he ranked 9th in strokes-gained ball-striking and especially excelled with the driver, ranking 4th – his best driving performance of the year. As someone who has been solid out of the bunkers this year and who is decent on the par 4s, he fits the bill for this setup.
He finished 59th on debut last year but got better after a poor 4-over 74 in round one, shooting two rounds of 68 in his final three. This performance also came at a time when his results hadn’t been as encouraging as they have been recently.
Top 10s in the Genesis Invitational and Sony Open – along with that recent strength of his ball-striking – give me confidence that Svensson has the game to put up an upgraded performance this week.
1.25 pt Aaron Rai each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 45/1
Aaron Rai is a player who typically excels on tough courses and/or in tricky conditions. With wind on the way, this precise ball-striking type can make a significant play at adding a first PGA Tour title to his trophy cabinet this week.
Rai recently enjoyed a stint in Europe, which included him narrowly missing out at Wentworth in the BMW PGA Championship, playing exceptionally in the final round there to finish 2nd to playing partner, Ryan Fox. He returned to PGA Tour action last week for the first time since the St Jude Championship in August, finishing 28th in Vegas and looked strong after a slow start; firing two rounds of 66 in rounds two and four.
He looked strongest with the driver there, ranking 8th in the field and it is his ball-striking that has engineered his best performances in the states this year, which has seen him record seven top 25s and a best of 3rd in the Canadian Open.
The Englishman ranks 12th in greens-in-regulation, 34th off-the-tee and 35th in approach on the PGA Tour. This enables him to score well on the par 4s, ranking 10th in par 4 scoring.
Rai finished 36th on debut last year, with a 66 in round two his standout round. Solid efforts at Colonial, Riviera and TPC River Highlands enhance my belief that he’s exactly the profile need for this event and with his ability to handle adverse weather on show from his Scottish Open win in 2020, he should relish potentially challenging conditions in Japan.
1 pt Joel Dahmen each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 66/1
Joel Dahmen produced his best ball-striking performance since last year’s US Open at the Shriners Open last week, seeing him to a 7th-place finish – his best on the PGA Tour in 2023. He went well here last year and if the increased standard in his long game continues, he’s sure to be a danger at Narashino CC.
Dahmen finished last year in great form with three straight top 10s but has struggled to establish himself in 2023. In his first sixteen starts of the year, he missed nine cuts and recorded no finish higher than his 41st at Pebble Beach all the way back in February.
He finally found that first top 10 of the year when 10th in the Barracuda Championship six starts ago and following a couple more subdued efforts he’s played some promising golf in the FedExCup Fall.
Prior to last week’s 7th-place finish, he finished 13th in the Sanderson Farms Championship, driving it well and showed sharpness on and around the greens. Jump forward a week to last week and whilst the short game wasn’t quite as strong, Dahmen was superb with his long game, which has often been a strength throughout his career. He drove it even better there, ranking 2nd in the field and was 6th in approach; both rating as his best performances in these areas this year and when combined, resulted in him being the best ball-striker in Vegas.
Dahmen was in similar ball-striking form when 16th here last year; an event at which he sat inside the top 20 at the conclusion of every round and entered the last day in 8th, five off the lead. A top 5 at Riviera in the Genesis Invitational is a further boost as to his suitability here and I expect him to once again feature near the top of the leaderboard if able to maintain anything like the quality of ball-striking we saw last week.
1 pt Zac Blair each way (1/5 – 8 places) – 200/1
Zac Blair’s form this year has been inconsistent but with some attractive correlating form – one piece of which came courtesy of a best PGA Tour finish ever earlier this year – I felt he was an appealing price on his first try at Narashino CC.
Blair has more letters than numbers in his form figures this year but does have a couple of notable top 10s. The first came when he finished 10th at the Valspar Championship in March but he comfortably bettered that at the Travelers Championship in June when finishing 2nd to Keegan Bradley by three strokes – the highest PGA Tour finish of his career.
He finished 13th in the 3M Open five starts ago and was a solid enough 42nd in the Shriners Open last week, shooting even par or better in every round.
A ranking of 38th in sand saves is a positive for the American this week, whilst his best results are often engineered by quality with his irons. Something he showed in that excellent runner-up finish in the Travelers ranking 5th and he has shown positives signs over his most recent starts.
That performance should bode well on his ZOZO Championship debut, as should finishes of 3rd and 6th in the Sony Open. With Andrew Putnam showing what the shorter, steadier types can do when 2nd here last year, I fancy Blair to produce a similarly impressive performance this week.