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Rikuya Hoshino E/W25/1
Antoine Rozner E/W25/1
The most fascinating of tournaments does not mean the easiest to unravel, and that’s the case with this week’s ISPS Handa Championship, taking place at the PGM Ishioka Golf Club in Japan.
The organisers postponed the inaugural co-sanctioned event due to nagging doubts over Covid, but there are no such fears this time.
At just over 7000-yards, the par-70 tree-lines track gives most hope to the DP World Tour players that have shown up at the likes of Crans, Kenya and Valderrama, all shortish courses that require a solid green-finding game, a thought backed up by the result of the 2015 Honma Tour World Cup, when K.H Lee, a subsequent two-time Byron Nelson winner, beat three players into second, one of those being Ashun Wu, at his best on the suggested tracks.
With plenty of visiting players having not played competitively since either, or both, of the South African events in March, this is potentially just a look to see hints for Korea, Italy and Belgium. Of those, the immediate hop over to the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club next week should be the target for golf punters looking for early clues.
Although pre-event favourite Rasmus Hojgaard has exciting form in all the right places, he has not teed it up in a competitive event since Ras Al Khaimah at the beginning of February.
The Dane looked tired during the final round of that contest and, having faded from halfway, the long rest may work wonders. Wins at Mauritius, The Belfry and Crans are exactly what I’m looking for, but the lack of a run-out may give the final advantage to two players that are equally promising as the 22-year-old, and coming from either side of the world to compete.
There seems a fair bit of dead wood amongst both parties, and the classier types look on a different level to the plodders.
Amongst the very best of the Japanese, 26-year-old Rikuya Hoshino has, what appears to be, one of the most obvious profiles for a while.
Runner-up in this event last year, the local star then won the Heiwa PGA Championship, around here, by five shots from Chan Kim, himself a winner of the event when held at Okinawa. Let’s make it even more convoluted by mentioning the 2013 PGA champion Ashun Wu, who rounds off the circle very nicely.
Hoshino’s sixth victory meant he has won in each of the last five years and he is almost certain to add to that if his form in 2023 is any guide.
First up this year was a visit to Ras, where he tied with the likes of Rasmus and Adri Arnaus, a mere shot behind the in-form and subsequent winner Thorbjorn Olesen. A pair of missed-cuts followed at Singapore and Kenya, but by only two strokes, before running up to multiple Japan Tour winner Shugo Imahira a couple of weeks ago.
One of the better birdie makers on the home tour, Hoshino pretty much speaks for himself and they should price him closer, if not shorter, than compatriot Takumi Kanaya, who has been plying his trade in a less consistent manner.
Defeated in a play-off for Hojgaard’s first win, Antoine Rozner took revenge on the course by winning the 2022 Mauritius Open by five shots, his third win following victories in Dubai and Qatar. Whilst Qatar was a grind, the Frenchman’s other two wins were in an aggregate of 44-under, the type of score we will be looking at this week in what should be a birdie-fest.
With green-finding a requisite stat if judged on recent results, his ranking of first in Mauritius, second in Singapore (finished in sixth place) 18th in Thailand (5th) and 15th at St. Francis Links (3rd) work nicely, whilst of note is the way he scythed through the field to never be better than his finishing position.
Like the vast majority of the visiting team, Rozner has never played here but has plenty of form at the likes of Crans and Valderrama, and sat 12th and 15th after the first two rounds of the Olympic title in what was clearly a far more elite field.
29-year-old Masahiro Kawamura may be a home lad but brings a wealth of DPWT form to the table and is far easier to judge than some of those stepping up a level.
The last few years have seen the affable Japanese player run up top 10 finishes at the relevant Trophee Hassan, Valderrama and Portugal Masters amongst his total of 16 appearances on the front page, with other highlights being sixth at Ras, ninth in Switzerland and seventh in Cam Smith’s Australian PGA win at the back-end of 2022.
Recent events have been quietly progressive.
After an opening mid-30 finish in Abu Dhabi (top-10 at halfway) Kawamura had been quiet until 17th in India and a runner-up in Kenya, where at neither event he was ever out of the top 20 at any point.
Ignore the missed cut on his one and only outing here in that event in 2015 and this accurate tee-to-green player brings along a much larger pot of all-round form than many of his more fancied rivals.
Finally, a stab with the mercurial but sometimes brilliant iron player, Sebastian Soderberg.
Whilst almost impossible to read, the Swede’s victories at Kenya and Crans read enough to pique interest, heightened further when considering he could have won at least one of the events held at Abu Dhabi, Valderrama, The Belfry and Mallorca over the last couple of years, all tournaments at which he finished a fairly luckless second.
Since the start of 2022, the experienced 32-year-old has ranked in the top 20 on six occasions for approaches and nine times for tee-to-green, including last time out at Steyn City when never out of the first 10 places.
By no means can Soderberg ever be a confident selection, but it doesn’t take a long memory to recall a 15th in Portugal and fifth at the Nedbank, both just before the runner-up to Victor Perez at Abu.