The ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP Preview

Josh Culp
Rotoworld

The revamped Asian Swing continues this week as the PGA TOUR heads to Japan for the inaugural ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP.

Before we dive into the event, let's talk a little bit about the sponsor which is a very interesting one. The company was started by Yusaku Maezawa who just resigned as CEO last month. Maezawa is famous for a few reasons. First, of course, for growing this clothing company to what it is now. Zozotown is Japan's largest online fashion retailer. Second, he signed on with Elon Musk and SpaceX to be the first commercial passenger to the moon. Third, he also got eyeballs from his infamous tweet that promised to give away $920K to his followers that Retweeted it. That tweet became the most retweeted on the internet at the time.

Now, back to the event. Just like last week, it's a limited field of 78 golfers with all of them guaranteed to play all four rounds, barring a WD.

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The field is comprised of 60 golfers from last year's FedExCup standings, 10 from the Japan Golf Tour, and 8 sponsor's invites.


The Course

The host venue is Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club's Championship Course. Not to be confused with the cherries of Croatian origin. Yes, Maraschino cherries are originally from Croatia. I stumbled upon that fact last week, unrelated to any Narsahino CC research.

The course is a par 70 that plays to 7,041 yards on the scorecard. That is relatively short by PGA TOUR standards. It's not a traditional par 70, though, as the card is made up of three par 5s and five par 3s.

While short, this course is not a pushover in the right conditions. The fairways are tight and heavily tree-lined. If the course were playing firm and fast then it'd be a lot of irons off the tee but that's not the case right now. As we saw in yesterday's Skins match, the course is a bit soft still and the fairways aren't getting much roll. That should let golfers pull the driver a bit more than they otherwise would but it still looks to be a course that is not easily overpowered and golfers won't be at a major disadvantage if they opt for a conservative strategy on the tee boxes.

On approach, golfers will have to deal with water on three holes (water in play off the tee on three holes, five total). Most of the holes are open as long as you avoid spraying it but a few approach shots will be hindered by overhanging trees. A unique feature of the course is that each hole has two greens available to use. That is customary for Japan courses but not something most are familiar with. The par-4 fourth hole will alternate greens this week while it sounds like the other holes with stick with just one of the greens for the week. If golfers do land on the wrong green, they will be given a free drop.

For turf, the golfers will see zoysia fairways and zoysia rough with bentgrass putting surfaces. The greens were prepped at 11 feet on the stimp for the Skins match and I'd expect similar speeds for tournament competition.


Course Quotes

Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.

Jason Day: "I've never played rough like this. The blade of grass is so huge."

Rory McIlroy: "This is the complete opposite of last week (Nine Bridges). Tight and Tree-Lined."

Rory McIlroy: "Especially with the way the course was set up, we could fire at some pins. Yeah, no, it's good fun. I mean, there's probably a few holes out there where during the tournament this week we probably won't hit driver, but it was nice to get driver in our hands and have a hit and have a bit of fun."

Overview: Not a lot of quotes since this is the inaugural edition but we did pick up some nuggets during yesterday's competition. Day gave some insight on the rought being unique. Rory talked about how the course setup and skins format led to them hitting a few more driver than we should expect to see during tournament play.

Correlated Courses

Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:

Chapultepec (WGC Mexico)
Sheshan International (WGC HSBC)
East Lake (TOUR Championship)
Firestone (previously WGC Bridgestone)
Innisbrook's Copperhead Course (Valspar)
Harbour Town (RBC Heritage)

The main theme is tight and tree-lined this week. East Lake also has the zoysia factor although East Lake's zoysia is just on the fairways while it's also Zoysia rough this week in Japan.


The Weather

Thursday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 70 degrees. Winds at 10 to 20 MPH.

Friday: Cloudy with periods of rain (80%) and a high of 67 degrees. Winds at 10 to 20 MPH.

Golfers will see windy conditions on Thursday and Friday before things calm down over the weekend.

Golfers to Watch

Justin Thomas
Riding high of a win last week in Korea. Also won four starts ago at the BMW Championship. Easily one of the favorites given that form. A lot of his wins have come on easier courses but with steady winds in the forecast on day one and two will he sputter out of the gate before storming late?

Rory McIlroy
A tight and tree-lined course this week. How does that set up for a big hitter like Rory? Well, he is on the record for loving tree-lined layouts, "It's sort of tree-lined. It's familiar to me. It's bent greens, it's everything that I feel like I do well. So I love coming here." That's what he said at TPC Boston and he also said this back in 2013 when talking about Oak Hill, "I love golf courses like this, big mature trees, tree-lined fairways." Should probably be co-favorite this week right alongside JT.

Hideki Matsuyama
One of the few in the field with past experience at the course. He'll have a lot of pressure on his shoulders but that could also lead to extra motivation. Narratives aside, he should set up well on the course that looks a bit like Firestone visually.

Xander Schauffele 
Has some family ties in Japan with his mother being born in China but raised in Japan. Schauffele has feasted on East Lake over the years which may serve him well when dealing with these tree-lined fairways and zoysia grass at Narashino CC. The only downside is that he's coming off a six-week layoff since he last pegged it in Germany. Will there be any rest or has he kept his game sharp?

Jordan Spieth
The Texan continued to lap the field on the greens last week in Korea but struggle to keep up from a ball-striking perspective. This week's course should allow him to club down off the tee and try to avoid the big numbers. Continues to be a boom-or-bust play that struggles to piece together four straight rounds.

Tiger Woods
Making his first competitive appearance since a minor knee operation in August. He said his recovery is right on schedule and this week will be a good test as to whether his body can hold up four straight days. Five, if you count the Skins game competition. Personally I'd like to see him flash some form before I reinvest in weekly fantasy formats.

Viktor Hovland
Snapped his sub-70 streak last week but he remains elite off the tee. In theory that should allow him to be more aggressive off the tee and give himself a few extra wedges per round. Wouldn't surprise anyone if he won soon.


Ranking the Field

1. Rory McIlroy
2. Justin Thomas
3. Hideki Matsuyama
4. Adam Scott
5. Tommy Fleetwood
6. Paul Casey
7. Xander Schauffele
8. Louis Oosthuizen
9. Tony Finau
10. Viktor Hovland
11. Rafa Cabrera Bello
12. Shane Lowry
13. Patrick Reed
14. Gary Woodland
15. Sergio Garcia
16. Matthew Fitzpatrick
17. Collin Morikawa
18. Andrew Putnam
19. Joaquin Niemann
20. Tiger Woods


Check back on Tuesday afternoon for our DFS Dish and Wednesday morning for the Expert Picks.


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