The Punter

ISPS Handa Championship: Back 33/1 Jordan Smith to be a contender

Golfer Jordan Smith
jordan Smith - a fair price to contend again in Japan

The DP World Tour resumes in Japan for the second edition of the ISPS Handa Championship and Steve Rawlings is here with the lowdown ahead of Thursday's start...

  • Irish link looks strong

  • Swerving the locals may make sense

  • Read my Zurich Classic preview here


Tournament History

DP World Tour members at the higher echelons of the game have been in action in the States, in the US Masters, but for the vast majority of DP World Tour players the ISPS Handa Championship is the first opportunity to play since the Indian Open at the end of March.

This is the third edition of the ISPA Handa Championship but it's only the second time that it's featured on the DP World Tour.

The DP World Tour and the Japan Golf Tour Organisation were supposed to co-sanction at the inaugural edition in 2022, won by Yuto Katsuragawa, but in February 2022 it was announced that the event would proceed as a sole-sanctioned Japan Golf Tour event due to travel restrictions caused by the pandemic.

The DP World Tour created the one-off ISPS Handa Championship in Spain event as a replacement and it was won by Pablo Larrazabal, who returns to the fray this week following the birth of his son, Thiago.

The event is new initiative and the only previous event on Japanese soil to feature on the DP World Tour schedule was the Olympic Men's Golf Competition at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Saitama back in 2021.

The first two editions were held at the PGM Ishioka Golf Course but the tournament switches to the Taiheiyo Club, Gotemba Course.


Venue

Taiheiyo Club, Gotemba Course, Gotemba, Shizuoka, Japan.


Course Details

Par 70 - 7262 yards

Originally designed by Shunsuke Kato, the Gotemba Course was completely remodelled by Rees Jones and Bryce Swanson in consultation with Hideki Matsuyama in 2018.

Rees Jones is quoted as saying:

"The Gotemba course is a beautiful, tree-lined parkland golf course with many views of Mount Fuji. It was well laid out by Japanese architect Shunsuke Kato in 1976. We left the green surfaces mostly intact, except for the par three 7th hole, where the green was rebuilt because the contours were too severe.

All tees were rebuilt. Some were added in order to increase length [and] improve angles. All the bunkers were reconceived and rebuilt in light of the character and demands of the modern game. Fairway lines were changed to provide fairer targets and reward properly-executed shots. Many closely-mown areas around the greens were created.

Most of the greenside ponds were reconfigured to allow for increased shot options and to create additional challenging hole locations adjacent to them. Trees and gardens are revered in Japan, so we were very selective in our tree removal... to allow for more sunlight to improve turf conditions on greens."

Gotemba hosted the World Cup in 2001, an event won by the South African team of Ernie Els and Retief Goosen and it's been the host course for the Taiheiyo Masters on the Japan Tour since 1977.

It's a hilly tree-lined track with magnificent Mount Fuji in view so we're in for a treat visually.


Weather Forecast


TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 04:00 on Thursday.


First Two Winners with Pre-event Prices

2022 - Yuto Katsuragawa -24 28/129.00
2023 - Lucas Herbert -15 30.029/1


Should we ignore the locals?

A host of Japanese players have course form and that will prove to be advantageous to a degree, but the Japan Tour isn't anywhere near as strong as the DP World Tour and I expect the Europeans to prove too strong for the local contingent again.

Hiroshi Iwata, who finished fast to claim a tie of fourth last year, was the only Japanese player to finish inside the top11 last year and back in the day, before there was plenty of money to be earnt elsewhere around the globe, the European Tour stars would pop over to Japan and hoover up titles at will. And especially so at this particular venue...

Seve Ballesteros won here in 1988, a year before Jose Maria Olzabal doubled up in 1989 and '90, Greg Norman won here in 1993, Lee Westwood won the Taiheiyo Masters three years in-a-row in the late 90's and Darren Clarke won the event back-to-back in 2004 and 2005.

Some class acts have won here, and Hideki Matsuya has claimed the Taiheiyo Masters twice, once as an amateur and once as a pro so perhaps understandably, for a hilly tree-lined track, Augusta form has come to the fore.


Could last year's Irish Open be a good guide?

Unsurprisingly, we don't have any US Masters winners in the field this week (although Jonas Blixt did finish second 10 years ago) but form at other tree-lined tracks might be well worth checking out anyway.

Multiple Gotemba Course winners, Westwood and Clarke, both have great form at Wentworth and they've both won at the K Club, the venue for last year's Irish Open.

THE K CLUB 2023 2.jpg

We don't have much to go on but checking out the result of the Irish Open last September may be a worthwhile place to start.


In-Play Tactics

A slow start has been overcome at the Gotemba Course lately with three recent winners of the Taiheiyo Masters shooting an ordinary opening round.

Jinichiro Kozuma in 2020 and Hideto Tanihara in 2021 both sat tied for 25th, trailing by five and four strokes respectively and Takumi Kanaya won the title in 2019 having trailed by eight strokes in a tie for 50th after round one but most course winners have started nicely, and it looks like a bit of a frontrunners track.

As many as three of the four winners before Kanaya were leading after round one, Kanaya is the only winner not to be inside the top-eight at halfway since Tommy Nakajima sat 10th and four adrift in 2016 and Nakajima is the only course winner since as far as I've gone back (1997), to be outside the top three places through 54 holes.

I'll be back later today or tomorrow with a look at the market leaders and a summary of any pre-event selections.


Market Leaders

Christiaan Bezuidenhout heads a wide-open market. The South African has been plying his trade on the PGA Tour throughout 2024 and with a degree of success too.

He finished second at The American Express back in January and his last four starts have produced form figures reading 13-9-25-28 so he arrives in fair form for his fourth visit to Japan.

Bezuidenhout finished 16th in the Olympics in 2021 and 29th in the ZOZO Championship in 2022 but he missed the cut in this event 12 months ago.

The first of his three DP World Tour victories came at Valderama, and he enjoys a tree-lined track so he's a worthy favourite.

Matthieu Pavon is next up in the betting and he's had an even more successful season in the states, winning the prestigious Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January.

Pavon wins the farmers.jpg

It's been quite a six months or so for the 31-year-old Frenchman who got off the mark on the DP World Tour in October at the Open de Espana having been largely disappointing in-contention before then.

In his sole appearance on the DP World Tour this year he finished fifth in the Singapore Classic and he was 12th in his first appearance in the US Masters a couple of weeks ago.

He finished down the field in the RBC Heritage last week (49th) but he has elevated his career to heights that looked unattainable seven months ago so it would be no surprise to see him contend.

Keita Nakajima was an impressive wire-to wire winner of the Indian Open last time out and he's the most likely local to challenge.

The 23-year-old has already won four titles on the Japan Golf Tour, including the Panasonic Open back in 2021 when still an amateur and he has form at the venue.

This will be his fifth visit to Gotemba and he finished third here back in 2020 as an amateur. In his three other visits he's finished 18th, 35th and 20th.


Smith a fair price at 33/134.00

Jordan Smith isn't great in-contention, but he looks a fair price at around 33/134.00 this week.

The Englishman has been in decent form throughout 2024, contending several times, and he was tied for the lead at the Irish Open at the K Club at halfway back in September, before going on to finish 12th.

Back Jordan Smith @ 34.033/1

Bet here

Smith was sixth in this event last year and he's no bigger than 22/123.00 on the High Street so I've had a modest bet at 34.033/1 and I'll be back later with some longshot selections for the Find Me a 100 Winner column.


Now read my Zurich Classic preview


*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter


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