After a year away, the ZOZO Championship returns to Japan this week for what is the third running of the event which carries decent prize money and a guaranteed four rounds as the PGA Tour and the Japan Tour combine for this no cut event.
Patrick Cantlay took advantage of the tournament remaining in America because of the pandemic last year but he has chosen not to head to Japan this week so we are guaranteed a new champion as the only other winner previously was Tiger Woods.
2020 – Patrick Cantlay
2019 – Tiger Woods
This will be the second time the course is used for this tournament, although there are only 24 players in the field who played here in 2019 so there may still be a great deal of unfamiliarity about the place. It is a par 70 which measures just 7,041 yards so it isn’t long by any standards. It is quite a weird place in that there are three par fives and five par threes around this place so you’ve got to think that will favour those who are in excellent touch with their irons.
There is a chance that length might be an advantage because there has been rain around and more is expected to come, not to the extent of 2019 when the 10th hole had to be turned into a 140 yard par 4 from 376 yards. Primarily though we are looking at a low scoring event so we need players who will find the short grass to set up good birdie opportunities. A hot putter to convert those chances is another necessity.
When this tournament was put together I doubt the aim of it was to have a field as relatively weak as this one but that is the world we are living in at the minute. There are some big names dotted in the field but nowhere near as many as the organisers would have wanted. Two current major winners are here though in the form of The Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama, who will be eager to win on home soil, and The Open champion Collin Morikawa.
Another man who has good recent memories of Japan is Xander Schauffele. It is just over two months since he won Olympic gold in this part of the world and he’ll be eyeing up a Japanese double this week. Other notables in the field include Rickie Fowler, Tommy Fleetwood, Joaquin Niemann, Alex Noren and Keegan Bradley. Si-Woo Kim, C.T. Pan and Kyoung-Hoon Lee are some of the Asian players looking to win in their home continent.
Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele are the 15/2 joint favourites to win the tournament this week. Both men have enjoyed overseas success this year and will be looking for more here. Morikawa was in great touch on home soil last week and has tasted the course before so he’ll be a popular pick, as will Schauffele who won the HSBC Champions in this part of the world in the past and was in the top 10 here two years ago. If I was taking either I would probably chance my arm on Schauffele but we saw in 2019 how this event can swiftly become a little farcical so 15/2 shots aren’t my thing.
Hideki Matsuyama begins the week as an 11/1 shot to go one better than he did here in 2019. The Masters champion hasn’t really fulfilled his potential for the rest of the year, but he was involved in the playoff to win the bronze medal at the Olympics to strengthen his very impressive record in his home country. Matsuyama has the profile to go very well this week and other than his form, which has been pretty ordinary since the WGC St Jude, there is a lot to like about him. That form is enough of a concern at the price though.
Will Zalatoris comes next in the betting as an 18/1 shot. I still think he is a little overrated based on his display at Augusta earlier in the year but there are some judges who think this place is a little like that one so that might inspire him to come good. Zalatoris is on debut here which isn’t helpful and his form is no better than ok overall. He didn’t play last week so he is fresher than quite a few heading into the week which might be significant but not enough to justify me backing him.
Joaquin Niemann is the only player shorter than 25/1 in the field this week. He is a 22/1 shot to win the title but he is going to need to find a serious improvement on form figures of 47-29-29-40-45 coming in here. He is an aggressive player which I think will be served well this week but has only gained strokes with the putter in one of his last five events. The winner this week won’t be losing shots on the greens so I’m happy to leave him out of the equation.
Rickie Fowler led the all-round stats for the CJ Cup last week and although he wasn’t able to convert the 54 hole lead, he finished third and wasn’t disgraced in the final round. The key to his success in Vegas last week was his long game. He led a much better field than this from tee to green, gaining almost nine shots on the field. His putter wasn’t as hot as it normally is which might be a concern but I’m sure last week will have filled him with confidence. Fowler is a rare breed in that he is an American who tends to travel well so he certainly ticks that box and generally he is a decent putter so with renewed confidence from last week I think he is worth following here.
CT Pan has good memories from winning the Olympic bronze medal in Japan earlier in the year and he has started this season well enough to suggest he is more than an outside chance this week. Pan finished that Olympic event with a 63 and if he hadn’t shot 74 in the first round we might be looking at him as the Olympic champion here. Pan has finished sixth in the Fortinet and T11 in the Sanderson Farms this season ranking 9-14 for those events on strokes gained on approach and 4-27 for them in strokes gained putting. They are the statistics I think is key this week and with him having previously announced that he enjoys Japanese layouts I’m expecting a big showing from him here.
Andrew Putnam has finished second in the Barracuda Championship and just outside the top 10 in the Sanderson Farms Championship over the last couple of months so he has the sort of form which might make him a contender. Putnam is a very good putter but in the Sanderson Farms he was fourth for strokes gained on approach and when he gets the irons dialled in he is a real threat. He isn’t the longest hitter in the world so he is only likely to truly contend on the shorter layouts such as this one. If he can get the hang of the greens straight up he should go very well here.
Peter Malnati is another who probably needs a shorter track to be able to prosper on and he looks a big price based on the fact he has one of those here. Malnati’s form hasn’t been fantastic recently but he was ninth in strokes gained on approach at the Sanderson Farms recently but holed nothing that week. That is very much unlike him because he usually putts very well. With no need to pound it off the tee I fancy Malnati to dial in some irons and then convert those opportunities with the short stick. I think it is worth paying to see how well he goes.
Back R.Fowler to win ZOZO Championship (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 31.00 with William Hill (1/5 1-7)
Back C.T. Pan to win ZOZO Championship (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 41.00 with William Hill (1/5 1-7)
Back A.Putnam to win ZOZO Championship (e/w) for a 0.5/10 stake at 101.00 with William Hill (1/5 1-7)
Back them here:
Back P.Malnati to win ZOZO Championship (e/w) for a 0.5/10 stake at 151.00 with Coral (1/5 1-7)