ZOZO Championship: Prolific Morikawa the man to beat in Japan

Golfer Xander Schauffele
Market leader, Xander Schauffele, with his gold medal

The PGA Tour visits Japan this week for the third edition of the ZOZO Championship. Our man has the lowdown ahead of Thursday's early start here...

"The world number three is the better of the three market leaders and by some distance of late, he’s the more prolific. He’s won four times in the last two years, Schauffele and Matsuyama have a win apiece."

Tournament History

This is the third staging of the ZOZO Championship, an event co-sanctioned between the PGA Tour and the Japan Tour. It's supposed to be staged in Japan each year but this is only the second time the event's been played there.

Tiger Woods won the inaugural edition (his 82nd and last victory) but due to the pandemic, the 2020 edition was staged at the Sherwood Country Club in California.

The ZOZO Championship is a limited field event with 18 of the 78 entrants being members of the Japan Golf Tour. The field also includes the world's top-ranked amateur, Keita Nakajima, who is making his PGA Tour debut but he's already a winner in his homeland having won the Panasonic Open a month ago.

Venue

Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club, Inzai, Chiba, Japan

Course Details

Par 70, 7041 yards
Stroke Average in 2019 - 69.52

Narashino CC is a 36-hole facility and the ZOZO Championship is played on a composite course with five par threes and five par fives.

Older golf courses in Japan were built with two greens on every hole so golf could be played no matter what time of year. Having two greens meant they could present different strains of healthy grass no matter what the season. Narashino, which opened in 1965, is one such course, although bentgrass blankets the greens there now and the two green system is no longer necessary.

NARASHINO 2021 1.jpg

The greens utilized for the ZOZO Championship have been prepped to run at 12 on the stimpmeter this time around and that's slightly faster than the 11.5 two years ago.

To honor the tradition of two greens in Japan, both the A and B greens on the par-4 fourth hole were used during the tournament and it's possible that another hole or holes also will use alternate greens this time around.
If a golfer lands on the incorrect green, the "wrong green" local rule will be enforced. It will allow the golfer relief off the green no closer the hole and no penalty will be assessed.

The course is tree-lined and fairly-narrow and the greens look smaller than average.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning at 5:00 UK time each day

First Two Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

2019 - Tiger Woods -19 50.049/1
2020 - Patrick Cantlay -23 44.043/1 (Sherwood CC)

What Will it Take to Win the ZOZO Championship?

We only have the one renewal to look at and that maybe a little misleading as the course was sodden after 10 inches of rain had fallen before round two.

Woods wins ZOZO.jpg

There were no Strokes Gained statistics and no Driving Distance stats were produced either for some reason but here's the top-five from 2019, together with their scores and available stats.

Tiger Woods -19 DA 7 GIR 3 SC 26 PA 2
Hideki Matsuyama -16 DA 29 GIR 7 SC 19 PA 1
Rory McIlroy -13 DA 13 GIR 20 SC 11 PA 12
Sungjae Im -13 DA 47 GIR 39 SC 7 PA 4
Gary Woodland -13 DA 3 GIR 3 SC 4 PA 33

DA Driving Accuracy
GIR Greens In Regulation
SC Scrambling
PA Putting Average

Ranking as high as third and seventh for Greens In Regulation, and second and first for Putting Average, Tiger Woods and Hideki Matsuyama finished the week six and three strokes ahead of the rest.

A combination of lots of greens found and plenty of putts sank is going to get the job done anywhere and they separated themselves from the field.

Gary Woodland, alone in fifth, played brilliantly tee-to-green but he didn't putt well enough and the fact that the top-four putters for the week were all inside the top-eight places if the mast striking statistic. Sungjae Im in tied third, and Billy Horschel in eighth, ranked fourth and third for PA.

Is There an Angle In?

Rory McIlroy famously traded at long odds-on at the US Masters in 2011, Sungjae Im finished second to Dustin Johnson last year on his first appearance at Augusta National and the first and second here two years ago, Woods and Matsuyama, won the year's first major either side of DJ.

Like Narashino, Augusta is tree-lined so anyone that's shown a liking for that course may enjoy this one.

It's also worth looking back to the Olympics played at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Saitama three months ago. That too is a traditional tree-lined Japanese course so it's a fairly obvious place to look for clues.

Tiger Woods outscored everyone on the par threes in 2019 and the Par 3 performance stats for this season and last might be worth checking out given 20 of the 72 holes played this week are short ones.

In-Play Tactics

Tiger won wire-to-wire in 2019 and Matsuyama was never outside the top-three so it may pay to concentrate on the early leaders this week, although conditions may differ considerably this year.

The 2019 edition went to a Monday finish after all the rain and with the course so sodden, it was a birdie-fest so making up ground was tough.

Tiger is also a phenomenal frontrunner. He has a greater than 50% strike rate when leading or co-leading after 18 holes and a greater than 85% strike rate when holding a clear lead at halfway. This was the 25th time in his career that he'd led by three strokes with a round to go and he has a 100% record.

To put that into perspective, the PGA Tour average for three-stroke 54-hole leaders over the last 25 years is a fraction over 50% and seven of the last 12 to lead by three on the PGA Tour have failed to convert.

The course ends with the hardest and the easiest holes so that's well worth bearing in mind if you're trading in-running on Sunday. The long par four 17th was one of only five holes to average above par in 2019 and there was almost half a stroke between the two averages with the par five 18th (the easiest on the course) averaging just 4.65 compared to 17's 4.13.

Anyone playing 18, and especially if they've driven and found the fairway, should be favoured over anyone behind them that still has the 17th to play.

Market Leaders

The market is struggling to split Xander Schauffele and Collin Morikawa and both trade at a single-figure price.

Schauffele should get positive vibes when he returns to Japan having won his Olympic gold there less than three months ago and if Augusta form is worth considering, that's another big plus too. He finished tied for second behind Woods in 2019 and third behind Matsuyama in April.

Schauffele was playing for the first time since the Ryder Cup last week, but he finished the event nicely with a 63 on Sunday to climb form 46th to 18th in the CJ Cup.

Schauffele was 10th here in 2019 but he'd sat fourth with a round to go before a disappointing 72 on Sunday saw him slip away.

Like Schauffele, Collin Morikawa has Japanese heritage, and he commands the upmost respect after he shot 62 to on Sunday to get within one of the eventual winner, Rory McIlroy.

Morikawa was third behind Schauffele in the Olympics but that was his first start since he won the Open Championship and he took his time to get going. He sat 24th at halfway and he was still tied for 17th with a round to go.

Morikawa shot 64 in round two here in 2019 but could only finish 22nd and in two visits to Augusta he's finished 44th and 18th but on a more positive note, he's more prolific than Schauffele and a tad more ruthless. On the eight occasions he's sat within three of the lead with a round to go, he's only once finished outside the top two places and he's gone on to win five times.

Dave Tindall's sweet on the chances of Hideki Matsuyama and I can see why. He has a fabulous record in his homeland with eight victories from 47 starts (17% strike-rate) and he's proven at the track.

Hideki Matsuyama Zozo.jpg

His current form's a little off putting though and since finishing second in the WGC St Jude Invitational in August he's produced figures reading MC-43-46-26-6-67-59 and my only other slight reservation was his disappointing final round at the Olympics when he never really got going. He had begun round four in second place and just one of the lead so it was disappointing to see him get beat by three. I'm probably being harsh there though as the pressure to deliver Olympic gold on home soil must have been phenomenal.

Selection

Take out the front three in the betting and this isn't a strong field. I can see one of the jollies taking the title and I was quite tempted to back the three combined at just a smidgen over 9/4 but after much deliberation, I'm going to play just one. Last week's runner-up, Collin Morikawa.

At only 24 and with two majors already tucked away, the world number three is the better of the three players and by some distance of late, he's the more prolific. He's won four times in the last two years, Schauffele and Matsuyama have a win apiece.

Selection:
Collin Morikawa @ 9.28/1

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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