Zozo Championship Preview – NBC Sports

Zozo Championship Preview – NBC Sports
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The PGA Tour had to be quick on their feet when they rolled out the inaugural FedExCup Fall series, and their lack of preparation has shown in many ways over the last few weeks.

As Dylan Wu pointed out in his social media rant last week, he was in the field for the Zozo Championship, this week’s 78-man field but at the time of his rant he was the first alternate for the Shriners Children’s Open which was a field that stretched to 132 golfers. Wu did eventually sneak into the field thanks to a pre-tournament WD but his point remains true. If the Tour wants to showcase the fall as a way for golfers to fight for the Tour cards, you should at least have events where those golfers closest to the bubble are invited.

This week in Japan, the Zozo Championship runs into similar problems. It features a limited field of just 78 golfers with 13 of those spots coming straight from Japan Golf Tour invites. On top of that, there are 17 golfers that finished inside of the Top 50 FedExCup standings. That leaves just 48 field spots for golfers who are jockeying for their 2024 status in one way or another. I love cross-tour interaction and it’s something I wish we saw more of throughout the year but the event doesn’t fit the theme of the new FedEx Fall so there will surely be some upset golfers on the alternate list this week. There are just four more events to secure their PGA Tour card or improve their 2024 playing status and they have to sit this week out to watch a limited-field, no-cut event take place.

With that being said, there is plenty of star power on the privileged list of 78 golfers who did land an invite, so let’s dive into the host course and then talk about some names that could pop on the leaderboard this week.

The Course

The host venue this week is Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club.

This classical design is a par 70 that plays to just 7,079 yards from the tips. It’s a good blend of short and long as there are four par 4s under 405 yards but also four par 4s over 485 yards.

Tiger Woods won the inaugural edition here in 2019 while local favorite Hideki Matsuyama won in 2021 and Keegan Bradley hoisted the hardware last year. Woods won on 19-under which is relatively easy scoring for a par-70 layout but Matsuyama lapped the field by five shots when he won at 15-under and Bradley landed on that same 15-under winning number last year. Overall, this isn’t an overly easy test but it should also be pointed out that weather can and has played a big factor here. It’s rain in particular that has shown up frequently here in the past but the current forecast does look relatively dry so the grounds crew should be able to set the course up as they intend it to play, rather than adapt to what Mother Nature allows them to as we’ve seen in previous editions.

Off the tee, golfers see tree-lined corridors with some doglegs to navigate around, as well. Big-hitting Cameron Champ called it a strategic layout. Both C.T. Pan and Andrew Putnam said it reminded them of the tree-lined layouts they played so frequently in the Northwest while Keegan Bradley compared it to the tree-lined layouts he grew up playing in the Northeast. RoryMcIlroy threw out a course comp back in 2019 when he visited, “reminds me a little bit of the course we play in Mexico, Chapultepec. Reminds me a little bit of that, just sort of the tree-lined and sort of the doglegs and having to sort of cut off corners and stuff.”

On approach, golfers will have zoysiagrass on the fairways and rough when attacking with their approach shots. As Jason Day pointed out in 2019, “I’ve never played rough like this. The blade of grass is so huge.” On top of the tricky rough, they will also have small targets to aim at. The course features two sets of greens for each hole but only one is used at this time of year so you get a free drop if you land on the wrong green.

The bentgrass putting surfaces are finely manicured, heavily sloped, and very speedy. Will Zalatoris threw out the ultimate compliment in 2021, “the greens are extremely fast and some of us were making comparisons to Augusta just given the slopes and how fast the greens were.”

Even without the quotes, Augusta National landed on my correlated course list this week with others such as TPC Scottsdale, Muirfield Village, TPC Sawgrass, and Waialae CC also appearing on that list. The main themes are speedy greens and bentgrass putting surfaces.

Golfers to Watch

Hideki Matsuyama

The Japanese star put on a show for the home crowds in his first two visits to Narashino CC, posting a runner-up finish in 2019 while winning the 2021-22 edition. Matsuyama settled for T-40 last year. He arrives with no competitive reps for roughly two months as he was last seen at the BMW Championship where he withdrew prior to round two with a back injury. His family hasn’t been alarmingly poor but he’s gone 13 straight starts without a top-10 finish (5th place at The Players in March).

Xander Schauffele

While Matsuyama is a fan favorite, Schauffele is the favorite on the betting board. Schauffele has family in Japan so he circles this one every year as an event he doesn’t want to miss. Schauffele has scribbled finishes of T-10, T-28, and T-9 in three tries at the classical track.

Collin Morikawa

With this likely being his last event of the season, Morikawa has one more chance to find his way back to the winner’s circle. It’s been nearly two calendar years now since he found that top spot on the podium, winless since the 2021 DP World Tour Championship. These last few years are strange in the sense that his baseline stats have been better than his early-career numbers in many ways but the wins just haven’t landed. Statistically, we should consider this more of an unlucky stretch rather than a slump and it’s likely just a matter of time before the wins start to pile up again.

Min Woo Lee

The World No. 45 golfer got acclimated to the time zone change with a win last week on the Asian Tour (Macao Open). His Non-Member FedExCup rank slots in at 121st with the top 125 at the end of the FedExCup Fall earning PGA Tour cards for the 2024 season. He’s making his course debut at Narashino CC.

Sungjae Im

He’s also going to be well-acclimated to the time zone this week as Im helped South Korea win a gold medal at the Asian Games just a few weeks ago and stayed busy with a runner-up finish last week on the KPGA. The youngster settled for a T-29 finish here last year but does sport a T-3 finish on his course resume (2019-20 edition).

Ranking the Field

1. Xander Schauffele
2. Collin Morikawa
3. Rickie Fowler
4. Sungjae Im
5. Hideki Matsuyama
6. Keegan Bradley
7. Adam Scott
8. Sahith Theegala
9. Min Woo Lee
10. Cam Davis
11. Eric Cole
12. Adam Schenk
13. Emiliano Grillo
14. Beau Hossler
15. Alex Noren
16. Nicolai Hojgaard
17. Adam Svensson
18. Thomas Detry
19. Ryo Hisatsune
20. J.J. Spaun

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