The PGA Tour visits Korea this week for the third edition of the CJ Cup and our man fancies the favourite to win the title for a second time. Read Steve' comprehensive preview ahead of Thursday's very early start here...
“It’s impossible to get away from Justin Thomas this week. He hasn’t finished any worse than tied 12th in any of his last seven outings and his fourth-place finish at the Safeway Open last time out has kept him ticking over nicely.”
This is just the third edition of the CJ Cup.
Nine Bridges Golf Club, Jeju Island, South Korea.
Par 72, 7,241 yards
Stroke Index in 2018 - 70.95
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, is a composite of two distinct nines - the Creek Course (front-nine) and the Highland Course.
The course has generous fairways, lots of elevation changes from tee-to-green, and large, undulating and slow bentgrass greens (10 on the stimpmeter). This what the inaugural event winner, Justin Thomas, had to say about the greens.
"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."
The course will play 45 yards longer than at last year's tournament. The par four sixth, 15th and 16th holes are an aggregate of 89 yards longer and the par five 12th is 44 yards shorter.
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.
For more on the course, please see the hole descriptions here from the PGA Tour website.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 03:00 on Thursday.
1 Justin Thomas -9 (playoff)
2 Marc Leishman -9
3 Cameron Smith -8
1 Brooks Koepka -21
2 Gary Woodland -17
3 Rafa Cabrera-Bello -15
3 Ryan Palmer -15
What Will it Take to Win the CJ Cup?
As the scores above demonstrate, Nine Bridges plays very differently depending on the weather.
After a benign opening day, when Justin Thomas opened up with a nine-under-par 63, the wind blew the field off course in 2017 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 but it was a very different story last year when the wind failed to blow and Brooks Koepka amassed a winning score of -21.
Statistically, nothing really stands out. Thomas, and the man he beat in a playoff, Marc Leishman, both putted well in 2017 but that wasn't the case when Koepka won 12 months ago - he had a Putting Average ranking of only 20th and the runner-up, Gary Woodland, ranked 21st.
Neither of the two course winners ranked inside the top-20 for any other stats but they both scored really well. Thomas ranked third for both Par 4 and Par 5 Scoring and Koepka ranked first and fourth and I suspect length off the tee is important - although no Driving Distance stats have ever been issued for some reason.
The par fives are quite tough and over the last two years they've averaged 4.88 and 4.7, suggesting only the really big hitters can make hay on the long holes - giving them a sizable advantage.
Is There an Angle In?
From a course correlation perspective, Nine Bridges vaguely resembles the Plantation Course in Kapalua - home of the Tournament of Champions. That too is a wind-affected track with large elevation changes and vast slow greens and there's plenty of evidence already to suggest they corelate nicely.
Thomas won the TOC 2017 and he finished third this year, the man he beat in extra time here, Leishman, led the TOC in 2018 before a poor weekend saw him slip to seventh and he was fourth there this year too. Last year's winner, Koepka, was third around the Plantation Course on debut in 2016 and last year's second, Gary Woodland, also finished second in Hawaii in January.
It would be daft to draw too many conclusions from just two editions but the evidence we have to date suggests winning from off the pace will be tough.
The first and second sat first and second after round one in 2017 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 and he went on to win in extra time.
Koepka trailed by three strokes in a tie for 11th after the opening round last year but he was only behind halfway leader, Scott Piercy, at halfway and he went on to win by four, having led by that margin with a round to go.
The back-nine is an interesting mix of holes.The par five 12th and 18th have been the two easiest on the course in each of the last two years but the 10th and the 13th have been the hardest two.
It's impossible to get away from Justin Thomas this week. He hasn't finished any worse than tied 12th in any of his last seven outings and his fourth-place finish at the Safeway Open last time out has kept him ticking over nicely. He could only finish 36th when defending last year but I'm happy to overlook that and he looks a fair price at 9.08/1.
Defending champ, Brooks Koepka, missed the cut at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open two weeks ago - his first event since he underwent surgery to repair a partially torn patella tendon in his left knee.
Brooks has been a much better performer in the bigger events and of his seven titles to date, this is one of only two ordinary titles to his name. He's won two US Opens, two USPGA Championships and back in July, he won the WGC-FedEx St Jude so he's not usually one to side with in an event of this stature but it's worth noting that he successfully defended both the US Open and the PGA so it might be daft to dismiss him.
Hideki Matsuyama is the only other player trading at less than 20.019/1 and he has form at Kapalua (3-2-4) but he was only 18th here last year and he hasn't won for more than two years now. He finished only 16th at the Shriners last time out, having missed the cut at the Safeway Open and I'm more than happy to let him go unbacked.
Given the time difference, I don't suspect I'll get to watch much of the event and it's not one I'm looking forward to with relish so I'm not going to get too involved but I'm happy to play Justin Thomas at 9.08/1. That looks more than fair to me given his very obvious course and current form.
Justin Thomas @ 9.08/1
I'll be back on Thursday or Friday with the In-Play Blog.
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