Zozo Championship Preview: PGA Tour Heads To Japan As Woods Returns7 min read
The PGA Tour moves to Japan for the inaugural ZOZO Championship with Tiger Woods making his comeback following knee surgery. Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club hosts an elite field with the 7,041-yard par 70 likely to require excellent ball striking, especially with strong winds and rain forecast over the first two days.
The tree-lined course will punish errant tee shots suggesting strong drivers will be at an advantage. Justin Thomas is the 7/1 favourite and last week’s winner warrants respect although he is likely to find it more challenging than on the wider fairways at the CJ Cup. Rory McIlroy tees it up in Japan and the 15/2 shot has been exceptionally consistent this year but his power may not be a major asset this week.
Matsuyama to delight home crowds
Hideki Matsuyama will receive huge support back on home soil and the Japanese star can end his victory drought. Matsuyama has not claimed a title since the 2017 WGC Bridgestone Invitational but there have been signs he is ready to win again. The five-time PGA Tour champion is a world class player and finished with a flourish in South Korea on Sunday, a final-round 65 firing him into a tie for third at the CJ Cup.
Matsuyama is a prolific winner in his homeland with eight victories on the Japan Golf Tour. The 27-year-old will be determined to produce his best golf at the PGA Tour’s first event in the country and he has every chance of contending. His biggest asset is his ball striking and the tight tree-lined layout should enable him to score well in Chiba. Home favourite Matsuyama can thrill the galleries with an overdue title at 16/1.
Xander Schauffele makes his first start of the new season and the American is backed to challenge for the trophy. Schauffele’s last PGA Tour event almost resulted in a win with second place behind McIlroy at the Tour Championship, at tree-lined East Lake. The world number eight is well rested, having not competed since September, but his victory at the Tournament of Champions in January proves he can hit the ground running after a break.
Schauffele has encouraging form in Japan, finishing second in the 2017 Dunlop Phoenix, which bodes well for this week’s tournament. The four-time PGA Tour winner landed his biggest victory 12 months ago at the HSBC Champions in China. His title defence is next week but the Californian will be eyeing more silverware in Asia at Narashino. The 25-year-old has no obvious weaknesses and his strong tee to green game should hold up in challenging conditions this week. Schauffele is fancied to contend in the ZOZO Championship at 20/1.
Fitzpatrick closing in on another title
Matt Fitzpatrick has been desperately unlucky this season but the accurate Englishman can finally get his hands on silverware this week in Japan. Fitzpatrick has finished runner-up no fewer than four times this year including at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on the PGA Tour. His last start resulted in second place at the Italian Open, with an inspired Bernd Wiesberger denying him a sixth European Tour win.
Fitzpatrick’s best form has come on tree-lined tracks and he should be well suited to this week’s challenge. The 25-year-old does not overpower courses and this strategic test, with tight fairways and doglegs, should play into his hands. Ranked sixth for strokes gained putting and tenth for driving accuracy this season on the European Tour, Fitzpatrick has the control and touch on the greens to contend at 33/1 each way.
Adam Hadwin has started the new PGA Tour season in blistering form and could continue his impressive run in Japan. Hadwin opened up with second place at the Safeway Open before a tie for fourth earlier this month at the Shriners Open. The Canadian is 36-under-par for his eight rounds this season and led the field in Las Vegas for greens in regulation, with a 90.3 per cent success rate.
Hadwin’s confidence is soaring and he has plenty of motivation with the wildcard picks for the International team at the Presidents Cup decided at the start of next month. The 31-year-old played two years ago and admitted he is desperate to secure a pick from captain Ernie Els. A strong showing this week could be enough to earn a spot and he is well-placed to feature on the leaderboard. Hadwin, whose sole PGA Tour victory was at tree-lined Copperhead, is a tempting bet at 50/1 each way.
Ryo Ishikawa was touted as one of the best young players in the world at the start of his professional career. It has not panned out this way but there have been promising signs of the Japanese talent starting to fulfil his potential. Ishikawa’s best result on the PGA Tour was six years ago after a runner-up finish at the Shriners Open.
Ishikawa currently competes on the Japan Golf Tour and his form this year has been extremely encouraging with back-to-back titles this summer. The 28-year-old has climbed to just outside the top 100 in the world rankings and knows the ZOZO Championship is a huge opportunity. With 17 victories in Japan, this looks the ideal chance to reignite his PGA Tour career and a top ten bet at 11/1 appeals, even if a victory is too much to expect.
Hideki Matsuyama each way
Xander Schauffele each way
Matt Fitzpatrick each way
Adam Hadwin each way
Ryo Ishikawa to finish top ten at