CJ Cup: Thomas primed to put up a bold defence in Korea
The PGA Tour skips from Malaysia to Korea this week for the second staging of the CJ Cup. Reda our man's detailed preview of the tournament ahead of Thursday's very early start here...
“After a lovely warm-up in Malaysia, where he finished the event with a Sunday 64, which was bettered by nobody on the day, and with eight wins in his last 50 starts worldwide, I thought Justin Thomas looked a fair price at around the 6/1 mark. He successfully defended his CIMB Classic crown in 2017 so attempting to retain the title doesn’t put me off and I can see him going very well now he’s a bit fresher than he was 12 months ago.”
This is just the second edition of the CJ Cup, following Justin Thomas' playoff success over last week's winner, Marc Leishman, 12 months ago.
Nine Bridges Golf Club, Jeju Island, South Korea.
Par 72, 7,196 yards
Stroke Index in 2017 - 73.19
Nine Bridges is a resort course situated on Jeju Island in the shadows of Mount Halla. Designed by Ronald Fream and David Dale of Golf Plan, the pineland course, said to be designed to create a Scottish Highlands feel, has generous fairways, lots of elevation changes from tee-to-green, and large, undulating bentgrass greens. The rough was extremely penal last year. It's a composite of two distinct nines - the Creek Course (front-nine) and the Highland Course.
Somewhat bizarrely, there are actually only eight bridges at Nine Bridges, the ninth is metaphorical and said to represent the connection between the club and its members and guests.
In addition to this event last year, Nine Bridges has previously been the venue for the World Club Championship and it was also used four times by the LPGA between 2002 and 2005.
For more on the course, please the hole descriptions here from the PGA Tour website.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 03:00 on Thursday.
Last Year's Result
1 Justin Thomas -9 (playoff)
2 Marc Leishman -9
3 Cameron Smith -8
What Will it Take to Win the CJ Cup?
As always, with just one renewal to analyse we're up against it but there were a few learning points from the inaugural staging.
After a benign opening day, when Justin Thomas opened up with a nine-under-par 63, the wind blew the field off course and Thomas actually ended up winning with a nine-under-par total of 279, so an ability to play in blustery conditions was really important last year and the wind will be a pest, if not a monster, all week this week too. Thursday is forecasted to be the worst day and it's never awful but it will consistently gust at - at least 10 knots.
The fairways are wide here but the rough was brutal 12 months ago so hitting fairways and greens is important. I remember witnessing Byeong Hun An's second triple-bogey of round four at the par three 13th hole last year when he took three shots from the thick rough alongside green!
Avoiding the rough is vital as it's clearly hard to play from but finding fairways is also key in order to find the correct portion of the very large and undulating greens. This what Justin Thomas had to say about the place 12 months ago.
"The greens have a lot of slope on them They're very big as well, so the slope can play a big factor and a big role in how you are going to play the course. If you want to use some of the slopes to get close to the holes, or if you want to use some to get into the spot where you want to putt from, but the hardest part is that you just have to play smart. You can't be too aggressive and short-sight yourself or have the putt above the hole. You want to try to leave it below the hole and have as many makeable putts with as little break as possible that you can out there."
Thomas' stats weren't especially impressive. No Driving Distance stats were produced for some reason but he only ranked 29th for Driving Accuracy, 34th for Scrambling and 44th for Greens In Regulation, and Leishman's weren't a whole lot better but they both ranked highly on the greens. Thomas ranked fifth for putts per GIR, tied 14th for one-putt percentage, tied fourth for three-putt avoidance and tied third for putting: birdies-or-better. And the first three home had a Putting Average ranking of fifth, first and sixth.
Is There an Angle In?
I'd consider a warm-up in Malaysia last week as a positive. The runner-up, Leishman, and Brian Harman, who finished tied for fifth, were the only two players inside the top-ten that didn't play in the CIMB Classic last year and three of the top-ten had finished inside the top-ten the week before in Malaysia - including the CIMB Classic winner, Pat Perez, who finished tied for fifth here.
From a course correlation perspective, I thought Nine Bridges vaguely resemble the Plantation Course in Kapalua - home of the Tournament of Champions. That too is an wind-affected track with large elevation changes and vast greens and last year's playoff protagonists both have previous there. Thomas won the event in 2017 and Leishman led it this year before a poor weekend saw him slip to seventh.
The first and second sat first and second after round one last year and the first four home were all inside the top-six places at halfway. Having dropped out of the lead with a tired looking 74 on Friday, which was 11 shots worse than his opening salvo, Thomas rallied superbly to lead with a round to go but whether we draw any conclusions from one renewal is highly debatable.
The back-nine is an interesting mix of holes.The par five 12th and 18th were the two easiest on the course last year but the 10th and the 13th were the hardest two and the second nine played slightly tougher than the front by around half a stroke.
Defending champ, Justin Thomas, heads the market and I'm not at all surprised. Winning the event last year took a monumental effort and he was running on fumes in the end. He had this to say immediately after winning.
"I'm so excited to not do anything. I have officially nothing in the tank at the moment."
After a lovely warm-up in Malaysia, where he finished the event with a Sunday 64, which was bettered by nobody on the day, and with eight wins in his last 50 starts worldwide, I thought he looked a fair price at around the 6/1 mark. He successfully defended his CIMB Classic crown in 2017 so attempting to retain the title doesn't put me off and I can see him going very well now he's a bit fresher than he was 12 months ago.
Brooks Koepka has won four times on the PGA Tour and three of them were majors, begging the question, is he fully motivated for ordinary events? He didn't play here last year, he didn't play Malaysia last week, and he was a bit disappointing at the business end of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship last time out. Until he starts to show he's really up for winning non-majors, I'm not keen on backing him in ordinary events and I'm more than happy to swerve him here at 12/1.
Aussie duo Jason Day and Marc Leishman are both much harder to dismiss. This looks right up Day's street and he putted well last time out at the Tour Championship but he didn't play last week and he finished outside the top-ten here last year (tied 11th). Of the two, I prefer Leishman and I perhaps shouldn't continue to crab his in-contention record now that he's won three times in the last 45 starts! He did take five years to add to his initial PGA Tour title and he still throws in some poor efforts in-the-mix but it's hard to fault his recent strike-rate. He hasn't, however, performed brilliantly in his very next start after a win so I'm happy to swerve him too.
I tried in vain to find an outsider or two to back here but failed so I'm going to begin the event with just a small bet on the favourite, Justin Thomas, and as it came up trumps for me last year, I've also had a small double on Thomas and Sergio Garcia in the Andalucía Valderrama Masters, which I've previewed here.
Justin Thomas @ [7.6]
Justin Thomas and Sergio Garcia
I'll be back on Thursday or Friday with the In-Play Blog.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter