This article is part of our DraftKings PGA series.
Winner's Share: $1.791M
FedEx Cup Points: 500 to the Winner
Location: Chiba, Japan
Course: Narashino Country Club
2020 Champion: Patrick Cantlay (Sherwood CC)
The ZOZO Championship returns to Japan after a one-year hiatus. Do you remember who won it the last time it was there? Hard to believe, but it was Tiger Woods. That was Woods' record-tying 82nd PGA Tour title and, sadly, his most recent. It was a dominating performance in which Woods won by three shots over Hideki Matsuyama and was at least six clear of everyone else. Making the win more amazing was that Woods was coming off a two-month absence following a fifth surgery on his left knee. But since tying Sam Snead atop the all-time PGA Tour win list that week, Woods has played only nine times, lastly almost a year ago at the 2020 Masters. He has been idle since his horrific auto accident back in February in Los Angeles. There is no timetable for when Woods will return to golf.
It is against this backdrop that the Tour returns to Narashino Country Club for the third edition of the ZOZO. Last year it was shifted to Sherwood Country Club in LA because of the pandemic. Patrick Cantlay was the winner, brilliantly coming from way off the pace to sideswipe Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas for the first of his four titles on the season.
It was decided only last month that the tournament would be able to return to Japan this year, while the other two prongs of the Asian Swing were either canceled (WGC-HSBC Champions) and relocated (last week's CJ Cup in Las Vegas). So this year's field was not overly strong to begin with – it's hard to head to Asia for only one event, and especially amid a pandemic – but then the tournament was hit with an influx of late withdrawals after the field was finalized on Friday.
Headlining the 78-man, no-cut event is Japan's pride and joy of men's golf, Matsuyama, who triumphantly returns this year as a Masters champion. Collin Morikawa, of Chinese-Japanese descent, and Xander Schauffele, who has Japanese heritage and recently won the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo, are the highest-ranked golfers at Nos. 3 and 5 OWGR, respectively. Other bold-face names include perhaps-resurgent Rickie Fowler, Will Zalatoris, Joaquin Niemann and Tommy Fleetwood. Those who pulled out after committing were Sungjae Im, Paul Casey, Kevin Na and a few other PGA Tour golfers. That left tournament organizers in a bind, as all the alternates were a continent away, so the field has been filled with Japanese golfers, more than the normal quota for this event. That has left this invitational event with a weakened strength-of-field rating of only 234, roughly on par with the Wyndham Championship.
The ZOZO is co-sponsored by the PGA and Japan Tours and is contracted to run at least through 2025. In 2019, it was the second leg of a three-stop Asian Swing, with the same enormous purse that last week's CJ Cup carried – bigger than any tournament other than the majors/WGCs/PLAYERS. Like last week's CJ Cup, the field has strict parameters: top-60 available from last season's FedEx top-125; the top-7 players on the Japan Tour money list through the Bridgestone Open, which was played two weeks ago; the top-3 finishers in the Bridgestone; and eight sponsor exemptions.
The 36-hole Narashino club opened in 1976. At just over 7,000 yards, the course is short, even at a par-70. It's not a stock 70 – there are five par-3s and three par-5s. There are some really short holes and some really long ones, not much in between. The par-3s are all short at under 200 yards. The 10 par-4s are either less than 425 or more than 485. Two of the par-5s are around 600 yards; the third is the 562-yard 18th, meaning there is the potential for drama late on Sunday. There is water on five holes, but that's not enough of a defense for today's pro, so what other defenses are there? The fairways are narrow and tree-lined with dips and elevations, and there are dog legs. Golfers used driver only about half the time in 2019.
Each hole has two greens, which is customary in Japan (but news to us two years ago). One set in Bentgrass at Narashino, the other Bermuda, and they do this in Japan to allow for seasonal changes. This week the golfers will use the Bent greens and not rotate, other on No. 4. If a ball lands on the other green, the golfer will get a free drop.
In 2019, Woods shot a 19-under 261 by racking up a whopping 27 birdies. Matsuyama was three back and it was three more to Rory McIlroy and Im. Coincidentally or not, three days before the tournament Woods, Matsuyama and McIlroy all played in a skins game days at Narashino, a course unfamiliar to most of the field. The fourth skins-game guy, Jason Day, tied for 22nd. So there seemed to be a real advantage to course familiarity. About 20 guys who played Narashino in 2019 are back for this edition.
Weather-wise, temperatures will be on the cool side, with highs in the low-60s but even in the 50s on Friday, when it looks like it'll rain. The other days appear to be dry, and there won't be much wind.
Key Stats to Winning at Narashino
The most important indicators every week are current form and course history. "Key Stats" follow in order of importance.
• Strokes Gained: Approach/Greens in Regulation
• Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green/Scrambling
• Strokes Gained: Putting/Putting Average
• Driving Accuracy/Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee
With just one year of course history and no ShotLink on site, we have limited data. Here's how it went: Woods (64-64-66-67) finished at 19-under. He had many birdies, 27, but also quite a few bogeys for the winner of a birdie-fest, eight. He ranked seventh in driving accuracy, third in greens in regulation, 26th in scrambling and first in putting average (putts per GIR). Matsuyama displayed a similar skill set: sixth in GIR, 19th in scrambling, second (!) in putting average. It's tough for Matsuyama to shoot two 65s and two 67s and not come close, but that speaks to how well Woods played that week. Woods did most of his damage on the front nine, opening with a sizzling 29 and continuing 33-31-32. Rory McIlroy, who tied for third, said Narashino reminded him of Chapultepec, where the WGC-Mexico has been played. Unfortunately, they haven't played there in a few years now, but maybe there's some info that could still be gleaned. The over/under on the winning score this week on golfodds.com was set at 261.5 – 18.5 under par.
DRAFTKINGS VALUE PICKS
Based on Standard $50K Salary Cap
Tier 1 Values
Collin Morikawa - $11,200 (Winning odds at the DraftKings Sportsbook: +700)
Morikawa went through an uncharacteristic period where he didn't so much as finish in the top-25 for four consecutive tournaments, followed by a lukewarm Ryder Cup. But he righted himself with a runner-up at the CJ Cup last week. Sure, it was a home game for the Summit Club member, though we feel confident for a high finish in this so-so ZOZO field.
Hideki Matsuyama - $10,300 (+1400)
It's impossible for an American golfer to know the pressure faced by Matsuyama playing in Japan. He is one of the nation's biggest starts, and that was even before winning the Masters. In two marquee events in Japan, he has handled the pressure with aplomb, tying for third at the 2019 ZOZO and just missing a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics this past summer.
Alex Noren - $9,700 (+2800)
One of the hardest things to do is tout a golfer a week after he burned you. We recommended Noren at the CJ Cup, and he limped home with a T59 in the 78-man field. And now he's gone up enormously in price. But the same reasoning from last week still holds: Noren played great in the second half of last season and just missed reaching the TOUR Championship. His short game – 27th in SG: Around-the-Green and 13th in SG: Putting last season – should lead to a rebound.
Tier 2 Values
Keegan Bradley - $9,400 (+4000)
Any track where accuracy from tee to green takes on added importance, Bradley merits consideration. And especially if you can get away with average putting – not terrible putting, average putting. He tied for 13th here two years ago. Bradley found himself outside the top 150 of the OWGR earlier this year but has fought his way back to 84th. He's coming off a tie for 32nd at the CJ Cup.
C.T. Pan - $8,800 (+4500)
We've jumped on Pan a couple of times this season and we're not ready to jump off. Ever since winning the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics he has been invigorated. Pan finished sixth at the Fortinet Championship and 11th at the Sanderson Farms Championship, showing greatly improved accuracy with his irons and his putter.
K.H. Lee - $8,700 (+5000)
Lee won the Byron Nelson Classic in the spring and immediately went into a funk, but he's rebounded nicely and is on a pretty good roll coming in. The Korean star has made the cut in seven of his past eight starts, five of them top-25s, including last week at the much-stronger CJ Cup. In his past two starts at the Shriners and CJ Cup, Lee has hit more than 80 percent of his greens in regulation and has killed the par-4s, collectively shooting 18-under.
Tier 3 Values
Branden Grace - $7,600 (+5000)
There's something to be said for golfers who travel the world to play – it's not easy – but the South African handles it, splitting time in the United States and Europe. He was not great last week at the CJ Cup, but had two good results in Holland and Scotland before that, and he was also runner-up at the Wyndham at the end of last season. Grace runs into trouble on longer tracks, but that's not an issue this week.
Harry Higgs - $7,500 (+6500)
Higgs had a good end to last season, making it through two playoff events, then a good start to the 2021-22 campaign, just missing a top-25 at the Shriners Children's Open and collecting a top-10 last week at the CJ Cup. Higgs' GIR numbers are far improved early this season, and he's also ranked 18th in scrambling.
Matt Jones - $7,200 (+8000)
Jones moves up in price from recent weeks, but not too much for us to pass. We tabbed him at the Shriners, where he cost $6,700 and delivered a T27, certainly justifying his price. Jones has a knack doing that but not much more. In the 15 tournaments since he won the Honda, Jones has made 11 cuts, but nothing's been inside the top-25. This field may allow that to change.
Roger Sloan - $6,800 (+6500)
It appears the DraftKings Sportsbook people think more highly of Sloan than the DFS people, and we tend to agree. The Canadian is a great greens-in-regulation guy. He's had wild swings his past seven starts: four results in the top-16, including a co-runner-up at the Wyndham, but also three missed cuts, including a the Shriners last time out. Sloan ranked 32nd on Tour in GIR last season.
Chan Kim - $6,500 (+10000)
Born in South Korea, Kim is an American who attended Arizona State and now plays mainly in Japan. He's been in a bunch of the these limited-field events, even majors, without much success. But he did finish 41st at the 2019 ZOZO, and in a much tougher field than now. Kim has played great golf of late to move to 80th OWGR. He won the Vantelin Tokai Classic two weeks ago, his fourth straight top-11, and is coming off a T15 at the Japan Open.
Scott Vincent - $6,400 (+13000)
Vincent is a Zimbabwean who has played on the Japan Tour in 2021, after going back and forth between Europe and Japan the past few years. He seems to have really found himself in his age-29 season, winning twice in the past two months and finishing inside the top-25 in nine straight starts to climb to career-best 115th OWGR. That includes the Olympics, at which he tied for 16th. Vincent played collegiately as Virginia Tech.