Rarely do plans come together as well as they did with Tom Kim on Sunday. Although helped in a big way by Patrick Cantlay’s unfortunate series of episodes down the 72nd hole, the 20-year-old became only the fifth player since 2019 to go bogey-free for an entire tournament, richly deserving the prize that lifted him inside the top-15 of the OWGR.
Of the previous four ‘perfect’ players, Joaquin Niemann was runner-up at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, an event at which Kim finished seventh on debut, whilst J.T Poston was error free when winning the Wyndham in 2019, won a couple of months ago by the Korean via a five shot margin.
Still, life, and golf moves on, and seven of the world’s top-20 make the journey to the Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club in Japan, ready to face a short but tricky track, tree-lined and with the choice of two greens on every hole.
The course hosted the Zozo Championship in 2019 and 2021, staying in the States for Covid year, and has been won by Tiger Woods, Patrick Cantlay and Hideki Matsuyama, three top-class players. For event form, however, leave Sunday’s joint runner-up alone and concentrate on the two Augusta winners, a clue in itself, as well as their attributes – high-quality ball-striking and ability to putt on undulating greens.
Viewers in both the States and U.K may need their alarms setting for the very early starts over the weekend, but with no cut for the 78-man field, there’s many a twist and turn to come.
Xander Schauffele is a worthy favourite given his world ranking of six, but he feels short at 15/2 despite a win at the 2021 Olympics, held in Tokyo.
Sungjae Im - To Win12/1
Corey Conners - Each-Way28/1
Corey Conners - Top-1013/5
With a top-10 at the Dunlop Phoenix in the early stages of his career, it makes sense to row along a man that is ethnically Japanese, but he’s not found the key to this course in two tries, finishing 10th and most recently 28th, even when carrying Augusta and his beloved East Lake form into the event.
Instead, Sungjae Im looks far more appealing as a wager at almost five points bigger.
The 24-year-old has a wealth of experience in Japan, and in 10 starts has a pair of top-five finishes on the Japan Tour. By far his best, though, is a third place finish, on his only start around here in 2019, behind Tiger and Deki, and level with Rory McIlroy.
Current form is as good as it gets without a victory, a runner-up at the 3M Open coming courtesy of a bogey-free 68, hitting 11 fairways and 14 fairways, something the Korean does repeatedly, before again ranking in the top-10 for tee-to-green at the Wyndham, where an opening 63 set him up for another high finish.
A third-round 63 launched him up inside the top-10 from 60th at St. Jude, and he was again just inside the top-10 at the BMW Championship before finishing the FedEx series with a one-shot runner-up finish behind the exemplary McIlroy.
Last week, he looked a threat to the top lot at various stages over the weekend and racked up his sixth consecutive top-20 ranking in strokes gained total.
Top-10 for par-four performance and in greens-in-regulation over the last three months, Sungjae brings a 2nd and 8th to the Masters form comparison and in a limited field with no cut, looks a player that is sure to contend.
Last week’s hero, Tom Kim, will appeal to many to gain his third win of an already remarkable rookie year, and at 14/1 is bigger than both Im and Collin Morikawa, who must surely relish the return to Japan, but who looks well short of his very best. The 20-year-old will not need to be competing so much behind longer hitters such as Cantlay or Matt Nesmith and his stunning iron game may well see him take another leap up the grades. Given he seems to take everything with good humour, it’s doubtful going back-to-back will bother him. I feel we can only have one at 16/1 and less, so I’ll leave those alone in favour of Corey Conners, another player with accuracy over length.
The 30-year-old Canadian has me in a quandary.
We know Conners to be one of the most accurate players on the park, and over the last 13 completed events he has ranked an average of around 13th for accuracy off the tee. That seems to oppose violently the PGA stats that show him 197th, before recalling that considers just one event of the 2022/23 wrap-around year, a missed-cut at the opening event of the season, the Fortinet. Buyer beware.
Fully ensconced at around 30th in the world rankings, Conners’ only win was at the 2019 Texas Open, but brings in solid top-10 form via Waialae – see Deki and the man he beat in 2021, Brendan Steele – and Augusta, where he has by far his best major form, 10th, eighth and sixth in his last three starts.
Two starts in this part of the world read very well, sixth here on debut in 2019 (including a second round 64) and a closing 66/65 in the Olympics, held at Kasumigaseki, a course with very similar grasses.
Like most of these uber-accurate players (he is third for greens-in reg over three months) it is the putting that let’s the side down, but Conners arrow-straight positional play will give him an advantage over a few at the same price, and whilst he is very difficult to get over the line, he represents each way value, and a good bet for a top-10.