Accurate iron play and hot putting key
Could Augusta provide clues?
Concentrate on the early pacesetters
This is the only the fifth staging of the ZOZO Championship, an event co-sanctioned between the PGA Tour and the Japan Tour - although it's not an official event for the latter.
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. We returned to Japan two years ago to witness a facile victory for the home hero, Hideki Matsuyama, and Keegan Bradley took the title in style 12 months ago.
The ZOZO Championship is a limited field event with 15 of the 78 entrants being members of the Japan Golf Tour.
Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club, Inzai, Chiba, Japan
Par 70, 7, 079 yards
Stroke Average in 2022 - 69.15
Narashino CC is a 36-hole facility, made up of two courses called the King and Queen.
The ZOZO Championship is played on a composite of the two 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.
The greens ran as fast as 12.5 on the Stimpmeter last year and that was slightly faster than the 12 they were set at in 2021 and the 11.5 they ran at four years ago.
To honour the tradition of two greens in Japan, both the A and B greens on the par four fourth hole were used during the inaugural tournament, but the two-green treatment shifted to the fifth hole in 2021 and that system was in place on the fifth again last year.
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.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 4:00 on Thursday morning in the UK.
First Four Winners with Pre-event Prices
- 2019 - Tiger Woods -19 50.049/1
- 2020 - Patrick Cantlay -23 44.043/1 (Sherwood CC)
- 2021 - Hideki Matsuyama -15 14.013/1
- 2022 - Keegan Bradley -15 36.035/1
What Will it Take to Win the ZOZO?
There were no stats produced for the 2021 renewal, but I have read that the winner, Hideki Matsuyama, ranked first for Greens In Regulation and GIR has been an important stat at the other two renewals staged here too.
There were no Strokes Gained statistics produced for either the inaugural edition, or last year's renewal and no Driving Distance stats were produced in 2019 either but here's the top-four and ties from 2019 and 2022, 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
- Keegan Bradley -15 DD 18 DA 23 GIR 3 SC 25 PA 6
- Rickie Fowler -14 DD 42 DA 23 GIR 5 SC 23 PA 4
- Andrew Putnam -14 DD 70 DA 31 GIR 19 SC 3 PA 19
- Emiliano Grillo -13 DD 19 DA 8 GIR 2 SC 48 PA 9
DD - Driving Distance
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 in 2019 and those were the two key stats last year too with three of the front four ranking inside the top five for GIR and inside the top ten for PA.
Is There an Angle In?
With three top-30 finishes from seven starts, Keegan Bradley doesn't have a great record at the US Masters but last year's runner-up, Rickie Fowler, often plays well at Augusta and that looks like our best angle in.
Rory McIlroy famously traded at long odds-on at the US Masters in 2011, Sungjae Im finished second to Dustin Johnson in 2020 on his first appearance at Augusta National and the previous two course winners, Woods and Matsuyama, have both won the year's first major.
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 in 2021. That too is a traditional tree-lined Japanese course so it's an obvious place to look for clues.
Bradley played the par fours better than anyone else last year but the runner-up, Fowler, player the short holes better than anyone else and Woods in 2019 and Matsuyama in 2021 both outscored everyone on the par threes so the Par 3 performance stats might be worth checking out given 20 of the 72 holes played this week are short ones.
Winner's Position and Price Pre-Round Four
- 2022 - Keegan Bradley - solo second, trailing by one 3.3512/5
- 2021 - Hideki Matsuyama - leading by one 1.845/6
- 2020 - Held at Sherwood CC
- 2019 - Tiger Woods - leading by three (price unknown)
Tiger won a severely weather interrupted inaugural edition wire-to-wire in 2019, Matsuyama was in front at halfway, having sat second after round one, and Bradley was inside the front three places all week long so it may pay to concentrate on the early leaders this week.
The course ends with one hard hole and one easy one. The long par four 17th ranked as the hardest hole in 2019, it was the second toughest in 2021 and the fifth hardest last year, whereas the par five 18th has been the easiest encountered in each of the three editions staged here and that's well worth bearing in mind if you're trading in-running on Sunday.
With the 17th half a stroke harder than the 18th, 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.
Having won Olympic gold in Japan at Kasumigaseki Country Club in 2021, and with three top-10 finishes at Augusta, Xander Schauffele is an obvious favourite this week.
With course form figures reading 10-28-9, the Californian is yet to really shine around Narashino but he sat fourth with a round to go on debut here back in 2019 and it's surely only a matter of time before it all clicks here.
Schauffele was rounding into form nicely when last sighted on the PGA Tour, finishing eighth in the BMW Championship and second at the Tour Championship, where he shot the lowest 72-hole total.
He was far from the worst performer for the US Team at the Ryder Cup last month and he has a favourites chance with his 30th birthday just a week away.
Collin Morikawa, who has course form figures reading 22-7-45, has severely hindered his chances by opening up the event with a one-over-par 71 on each of the three occasions he's played here. He may be one to consider in-running if he gets a better start this time but he makes no appeal before the off at less than 14/115.00.
Korea's Sungjae Im arrives in Japan fresh off a second placed finish in his homeland in the Genesis Championship last week and he finished third behind Tiger and Matsuyama here on debut back in 2019. But he too looks short enough at 16.015/1.
On his only other visit to Narashino, Im finished 29th last year and he'll need to improve his slightly disappointing approach play if he's to be a factor this week.
Hideki Matsuyama hasn't been seen since withdrawing from the BMW Championship with a back injury so has to be considered a risky play. Although Min Woo Lee won the Macau Open on the Asian Tour last week. and was in fine fettle this time last year, he looks a bit short at around the 20.019/1 mark.
Rickie Fowler led through rounds two and three last year before being picked off by Bradley and, although he's been slightly disappointing of late, he arrives in far better overall form than he did last year.
A consistent summer was highlighted with a victory at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in July and it would be no surprise to see him go one better this year but again, he's not a fabulous price at 20.019/1 either.
I've got one for the Find Me a 100 Winner column, which I'll publish later today or tomorrow, but given nobody in the single and double-figure bracket appeals greatly, I'm happy to concentrate on this event in-running.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter